BWW Reviews: Penfold Theatre's RED a Vigorous, Compelling Drama
At one point in Red, the brilliant drama which kicks off Penfold Theatre's 2013-2014 season, the eccentric artist Mark Rothko forces his assistant to look at his work with a closer, more critical eye. "Look at the tension between the blocks of color," he demands. "They ebb and flow and shift, gently pulsating." While it's tough to say whether or not pulsating tension exists in Rothko's paintings (we never see any of them in the show), Penfold's production of Red is full of it. This is one taut, well-crafted drama featuring brilliant performances and pitch-perfect direction.
John Logan's sharp, witty, and often comical drama centers on real-life artist Mark Rothko, an Abstract Expressionist painter with a paradoxical proclivity towards both narcissism and self-doubt. As an intellectual, against-the-norm artist, Rothko struggles when he's asked to create a series of murals specifically for the upscale Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. Logan's superb text capitalizes on Rothko's trademark intensity and pretentious way of speaking, and the piece revolves around Rothko ranting about himself and his art to his younger assistant and pupil.
Director Nathan Jerkins allows Logan's words to flourish by focusing squarely on the dialogue and the relationships between the teacher, his pupil, and their art. The simplicity of the staging allows the text to stand out, and Jerkins's decision to have his actors stare at the audience as if they are looking at one of Rothko's works in progress allows the audience to feel as if they're a fly on the wall.
Steven Pounders gives a breathtaking performance as the unpredictable, sometimes volatile Rothko. Though Rothko first appears as an egomaniac, Pounders slowly and skillfully peels away the layers to reveal a skeptical and fearful artist who may eventually be lost and forgotten in the wake of the Pop Art craze of the late 50s. The more he reveals of Rothko, the less we feel we know. Though the play may be truly Rothko's show (the character loves to hear himself talk), Ryan Crowder gives an intense and ultimately explosive performance as Rothko's assistant, Ken. While Rothko is bold and loud, Ken is quiet and subdued, and the contrast between the two is just as noticeable as the contrasts in color found in Rothko's art.
Red, like Rothko's work, may look simple on the surface, but it's far more complex than it first appears. Regardless of your appetite for abstract art, this is a must see drama that once again proves that Penfold is one of the strongest theater companies in Austin. Like the artist at its core, Red demands attention.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Note: Recommended for mature audiences only.
RED, produced by Penfold Theatre Company, plays the Trinity Street Theatre (located inside the First Baptist Church of Austin) at 901 Trinity St, Austin, 78701. Performances are Sept 12th - 29th, Thursdays - Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm. Tickets are $20 regular, $18 students and seniors. For tickets and information, please visit www.penfoldtheatre.org
Top Photo: Steven Pounders as Mark Rothko in RED. Photo by Kimberley Mead; Middle Photo: "Sketch for Mural #4" by Mark Rothko; Bottom Photo: Steven Pounders (L) as Mark Rothko and Ryan Crowder (R) as Ken in RED. Photo by Kimberley Mead.