BWW Reviews: Cleveland Play House's RED, Everything Theatre Should Be

Cleveland Play House' s RED, everything theatre should be!

If you've ever gone into an art gallery and seen a canvas with a large square within another square on a solid background, or a strip of color vertically slicing through a sea of solid color, you've been exposed to what may be classified as a painting of the anti-figurative aesthetic segment of the Abstract Expressionism movement.   One of the most important painters of that school of art was Mark Rothko.   

Playwright John Logan's RED illuminates a short period of time in Rothko's life when he was commissioned to create a series of paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York's Seagram Building.   It illustrates through drama and humor Rothko's fanatic belief that art matters.  It also gives a glimpse into the complexity of the man and his bi-polar personality.  One minute he is a gentle philosopher, the next a maniac tyrant.  The play illuminates the being of an artist and his creations.  

Russian born Rothko (Marcus Rothkowitz) was a product of the Realistic movement of art, but he moved quickly away from that.  He, along with some other painters formed a group called The Ten, joining together on a mission "to protest against the reputed equivalence of American painting and literal painting."  

Rothko and success did not meld easily.  After receiving acclaim, he became almost paranoid over the views of critics, curators and the public, in general.  

In order to display his art in the way that he thought proper, he built The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, a holy space that is open to all faiths, but belongs to none.  In it he placed his works, including those that were intended for the Four Seasons Restaurant, but which he refused to place inside the fabled eating establishment because, after visiting the space, he decided that it was not a proper setting for seeing and appreciating his work.

Logan's RED has Rothko hiring Ken, a young art student, to be his assistant.  At first Rothko's strong personality almost overwhelms Ken, but gradually, they develop a working agreement.  Not a friendship, not Rothko acting as a father figure or teacher, but two artisans working together in an unequal balance.  That connection lasts until Ken finally says what he needs to express.  Ken is fired, but has learned a great deal about art, himself, Rothko, and the color red.

The play is filled with mentally and emotionally inciting lines.  Included are:  "You can't be an artist until you are civilized."  "Most painting is thinking."  "A picture lives by companionship."  "Not all art is psychodrama."  "Silence is accurate."  "Black swallows red."   

It's impossible to sit through the show and be passive.  There is just too much going on that excites the mind. 

Director Anders Cato has molded the production into a compelling study of art history and the mind of an artist, at least Rothko as artist.  The show is well paced, holds the audience's attention for the 90-minutes of dialogue, and brings out excellent portrayals by both actors.

Bob Ari, who is probably best known for his being Nixon in FROST/NIXON, is the consummate professional.  He is totally believable as the explosive Rothko.  His every word and movement are meaningful.  The passion of Rothko is the passion of Ari.   

Young Randy Harrison, is probably best known for making many gay men his admirers as the handsome Justin in Showtime's QUEER AS FOLK and picked up another slew of fans for his portrayal of Boq in the musical WICKED.  Harrison is completely natural and believable as the apprentice who endures the mood swings of Rothko.  He accomplishes what is so difficult to do on stage…listening effectively.  He watches every gesture, observes every word of Ari with total concentration.  He gives a master class of being in, deep in a role.  

Ari and Harrison play well off each other.  The emotional and physically exhausting scene where the duo primes a blank canvas with reddish paint is enthralling. 

Dan Kotlowitz's lighting design helps create the right moods and, like good choreography does to music, follows the flow of the words to develop the right moods and textures. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Must see RED is special-great acting, a fine script, thought provoking dialogue, educational-everything theatre should be!

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From This Author Roy Berko