Reviews ...

Red

... a theater review

by Elizabeth Samit

On June 13, 2010, “Red” won the Tony Award for ‘best play'. I was privileged to see a matinee performance of "Red" the previous Saturday at the Golden Theatre in New York City. Performed in 90 minutes with no intermission, it is anchored in the relationship between only two characters.

The plot, such as exists, revolves around the relationship between the artist, Mark Rothko (played by Alfred Molina) and his assistant, Ken (played by Eddie Redmayne) as they work together in Mark’s art studio. John Logan’s script is so gripping that the minimalist plot, characters, and set in no way detract from the overall effect—which mirrors the minimalist style of Mark Rothko’s paintings.  As such, it pays homage to this influential 'abstract expressionist' artist of the twentieth century.

The script is a conversation between master and apprentice encompassing multi-leveled themes; the dialogue is like a long poem, concerned with existential questions and vivid imagery.  However, the central theme throughout is the making of art itself.  Early in the play, Mark—enamored of the color red—asks rhetorically, “what is red?” and attempts to imbue Ken with an understanding of its many hues.  Mark is likewise enamored of the relationship on canvas between red and black paint, and the visual effect of black on red.  

In this manner, red (the sole color these characters paint together) becomes a metaphor for both the creative urge and passion, while black becomes its antithesis—as well a metaphor of the shifting relationship between Mark and Ken in their own philosophical attitudes.  As this biographical play progresses, Mark paints an increasing amount of black on his red canvases.  Meanwhile, Ken’s role as assistant gradually changes as he finds his own artistic style apart from his mentor.    

The most engrossing scene, filled with physical energy, occurs in the second half of the play, when the two characters work silently side-by-side on Mark’s canvas, painting it red.  This activity appears on stage like a passionate dance, where two creative minds merge into one to complete the painting.  It is a decisive point, after which the assistant begins to develop his own voice and present his own artistic perspective.

In some ways, this play reminded me of Spaulding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia” (albeit with two characters) in its lack of action and continuous, thought-provoking dialogue.  I came away with a feeling of the color red linked with passion, and passion as the essential ingredient in creating art. The more black paint was applied to the canvas, the more vibrant the red appeared.  Perhaps this can be interpreted as a metaphor for life itself.

The outstanding acting by Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne captured the depth of the script and made the entire performance riveting.  Also, the precise use of lighting and minimalist stage-set kept the focus on the characters and the paintings-in-progress.

I highly recommend this play.  If you don’t have the opportunity to see it, then read it aloud with someone special in your life.

July 2, 2010


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