BWW Reviews: Blackbird Theatre's Stunning RED Is One of the Year's Best Plays
Engrossing and compelling, John Logan's Red-which features a pair of tour-de-force performances from Ronnie Meek and Justin Boccitto under the focused and sure-handed direction of Mike Fernandez-is an altogether impressive third season opener for Nashville's Blackbird Theatre, the company that has firmly established itself as one of the region's most ambitious and most confident purveyors of quality theatricality.
Logan's exquisitely written treatise on art and the people who create it, brought so refreshingly and unabashedly to life in Blackbird's beautifully designed production, offers the engrossing tale of the renowned abstract expressionist painter Rothko (who, no doubt, would bridle at such a characterization of his life's work) and his fictional assistant Ken. Logan's script follows the pair through a two-year relationship that is both edifying and enlightening as it shows us the sometimes funny and poignant, oftentimes tumultuous and circuitous journey toward a shared goal of making art for the ages.
Clearly, Red represents Logan's own creative journey as he considers the story of Rothko and his legendary 1958 commission to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant, located inside New York City's gleaming new skyscraper-The Seagram's Building, designed by architects Philip Johnson and Mies Van Der Rohe-and his subsequent decision to return the commission and to lock the murals away from the prying eyes of the public and the critical rejoinders of the international art community. Since Rothko never explained his decision publicly and, in fact, kept the murals in storage until 1968, Logan is given the artistic license to create a story in which he can ponder what might have been, using what actually is known about Rothko as the basis of his intellectual construct. The result is a fascinating one-act play that delivers on a variety of levels, not the least of which is its central theme of what motivates an artist to create and the thought processes that inform everything he does.
Director Mike Fernandez has a clear and concise view for the play, allowing for the magnificent use of theatrical design and technical wizardry to help his two actors to tell the story, which propels the play on its way. Never for a moment during the 90-minutes plus of Red does your mind wander-thanks to the intense performances onstage and the elegiac and near poetic language employed by the playwright-or your imagination lack for sustenance. Clearly, Blackbird Theatre's Red is one of the year's best, most electrifying nights of theater Nashville audiences have had the pleasure of witnessing.
Fernandez gives his actors rein to fully realize their characters and to deliver stunning performances that are completely believable while somehow managing to be palpably larger-than-life in the very same way that Rothko himself was viewed during his heyday.
Ronnie Meek gives an extraordinary performance as Rothko, affecting a Russian-tinged accent that fits his character perfectly and which he is able to maintain beautifully from start to finish. As he rails against the pedestrian and prosaic tastes of the general public and rages against the ever-changing tides of popular culture and the homogenized artistic tastes of the proletariat, Meek captures the artist's haughty disdain perfectly. With a genuine sense of who Rothko is, Meek is engrossing, offering a master class in dramatic technique for his audience while never for a moment appearing to be too stagey or phony in doing so. With his round-framed eyeglasses and slight middle-age paunch, Meek looks for all the world like Rothko's very doppelganger, showcasing his chameleon-like quality as an actor.
As Ken, the fictional character created by Logan to provide the audience access to the inner workings of the artist's psyche, Justin Boccitto makes his Nashville stage debut (heretofore, he's been represented as a director and choreographer thanks to his award-winning efforts in Lipscomb University Theatre's production of Hairspray last season) with extraordinary results. In the play's early going, Boccitto plays Ken with a sense of deference and naivete, his wide-eyed wonder representing the outsider's view of this new world in which he finds himself, providing us with entre into Rothko's rarefied space. Gradually, however, as the play progresses and Rothko and Ken become more interdependent upon each other, Boccitto effectively captures the growing familiarity of his character with an easy grace and unfettered sense of drama.
By the time we find ourselves totally immersed in the play's more dramatic scenes-when Ken reveals a harrowing childhood experience that continues to haunt him and Rothko's near-crippling breakdown after he realizes that he has, perhaps, sold out his artistic principles for economic gain-it is easy to forget that you are watching a play. Instead, you feel as if you are an integral part of the proceedings onstage, the emotional situations are so completely involving. Certainly, credit for that is due Logan for creating the words and the scene, but it wouldn't work so well as it does if not for Fernandez's thoughtful direction and his actors' frank and startling portrayals of the two characters.
As strong as Fernandez's direction and Meek and Boccitto's performances are, much of the success of Blackbird's Red can be attributed to the magnificent visual aesthetic of the production thanks to the efforts of lighting designer David Hardy, scenic designer Andy Bleiler, costume designer June Kingsbury and the rest of the creative team (which includes producers Greg Greene and Wes Driver, along with music consultant Michael Slayton and art consultant Dane Carder). Bleiler recreates a detailed artist's studio, circa 1958/59, with a blend of enormous skill and restraint, while Hardy's eye-poppingly gorgeous lighting design (there simply are not words to express how expressive and evocative his moody lighting truly is) illuminates the Shamblin Theatre with an artistic eye that very nearly rivals Rothko's. Kingsbury's costumes for the two men are ideally crafted (Ken's plaid sportcoat and narrow necktie expertly provide visual cues to the play's timeframe), while Kate Foreman's props are impressively realistic and tonally perfect.
Slayton and Driver provide musical underscoring that adds to the impact of Red, while the artwork created for the production-under Carder's consult-helps to give audiences a sense of Rothko's originality and impact on the contemporary art world.
- Red. By John Logan. Directed by Mike Fernandez. Presented by Blackbird Theatre, Nashville. At Shamblin Theatre, Lipscomb University, Nashville. Through October 20. For details, go to www.blackbirdnashville.com.