“What do you see?” the famous artist asks the young man as he first enters his massive studio in the Bowery. For its second production of its season, Everyman has taken on John Logan’s six-time 2010 Tony award-winning production Red – a two-man character study of the brilliant, egocentric and combative abstract expressionist, Marc Rothko, and the relationship with his young assistant, Ken. The play covers a two-year period in the late 1950s during which Rothko was commissioned to create a series of mural-sized paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, housed in the new Seagram’s building. It also is at a time when modern art was becoming more commercial with artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol emerging on the scene.
Rothko (Bruce Randolph Nelson) is a self-important, cantankerous old lion fighting his fear of mortality and insignificance. He rails against everything from critics, fellow artists, the changing art world, and the pretention of those who collect his work. He is not a likeable character and can also be accused of pretention, but by the end of the play you cannot help but admire his deeply rooted passion and intelligence. The paintings are his “children” and anyone who has ever created anything understands that feeling. And he gets it right about so many things. “You have a lot to learn, young man. Philosophy. Theology. Literature. Poetry. Drama. History. Archeology. Anthropology. Mythology. Music. These are your tools as much as pigment…”
Everyman Theatre continues to produce some of the finest productions anywhere and ‘Red’ is no exception.
Enter Rothko’s assistant Ken (Eric Berryman), an aspiring young painter, who suffers the rollercoaster of emotions and moods thrown at him by this art master. Rothko tells the young man that, among other things, he is not his teacher. Predictably this is a teacher-student relationship as the roles reverse and shift throughout the play. Though timid and unsure at first, Ken ultimately holds his own and has a few things to teach Rothko as well.
In one scene, Ken is stretching a huge canvas. That canvas is then hung facing the audience. Rothko puts on a record and a frenetic dance unfolds as the two men mix and then prime the canvas together as fast as possible. They finish, exhausted and covered in paint. The color sparks the memory of a tragic event in the life of the young man. That part of the script seems contrived and awkward for the audience as it does Berryman. But it is revealed that both have a color that evokes a strong, emotional reaction in each of them.
Director Donald Hicken has done a brilliant job with two fine actors from the Everyman’s resident company – the veteran actor Bruce Randolph Nelson is deservedly considered one of the finest actors in the Baltimore/DC area (he recently opened Center Stage’s season as Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers) and Eric Berryman is clearly a rising star in the theater world. Just as Rothko’s seemingly simple paintings are many applications of layers of color, this production benefits from the layer of the past relationship between Hicken and Berryman who was a student of the director while attending the Baltimore School for the Arts.
Set designer Daniel Hicken (with props by Jillian Matthews) has recreated a working artist’s studio right down to the smallest detail. Any artist could walk onto that stage and start to paint. There is a small kitchen with running water, dry pigments and eggs which the actors mix in on stage, brushes and cans of turpentine. As a MICA graduate, this was all so familiar and authentic to me.
Ironically we never see the paintings which are stacked around the massive studio but hidden from view. Rothko’s paintings are “out there” as the actors look into the audience, studying them. However, during the scene changes, lighting designer Nancy Schertler reveals recessed walls of deep reds and the subtle pattern of square shapes (for which the artist was known) on either side of the stage. She also captures the artist’s ironic dislike of natural light.
With sound design by Neil McFadeen, music is a crucial element in the creative process for Rothko. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is both appropriate and obvious as well as the other classical artists Rothko is always loading on his phonograph player. The one contemporary jazz album Ken dares to play is quickly dismissed.
You don’t have to be an artist or love modern art to appreciate this play. Like Rothko’s work, it embraces and engages you. Everyman Theatre continues to produce some of the finest productions anywhere and Red is no exception.
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes with no intermission.