Thalian Association continues its newly revived second-stage summer season at the Red Barn Theatre with John Logan’s “Red.” The Tony and Drama Desk award-winning play explores the eternal question of what art is or is not through an exploration of Mark Rothko.
Duality is central to the questions explored in this show. To that end, playwright John Logan has two characters: a fictional art student named Ken (Patrick Basquill) and his employer, famed visual artist Mark Rothko (Robb Mann). The action is confined specifically to 1958 and ’59 when Rothko was working on his controversial Four Season’s installation and to some extent offers an answer to why he never fulfilled the commission. Ken is hired to help stretch and prime canvases and wait upon Rothko’s needs (food, cigarettes, etc.). Together they act out the classic story of the student and teacher with the student eventually killing the teacher.
Rothko’s mental instability is touched upon in the show but not telegraphed constantly. In his lifetime, he never gave a legitimate reason for backing out of the Four Season’s commission. The possibility that Ken is a creation of his own mind is lightly offered but not hammered home; the reality of creation underpins everything about this character. Logan’s script beautifully flickers near many elements of Rothko’s coming life, including his eventual suicide and his final work, The Rothko Chapel in Texas. This is a tremendous undertaking for two actors to explore onstage.
Portraying real people is difficult because the audience has specific expectations based on their knowledge of the person from films, TV and books. Though Rothko was famous, the public perception of him is not as specific as it would be with someone like Elvis, Princess Diana or Bob Dylan. To that end, Mann has Rothko’s hair, glasses and stoop, but is not confined by these elements; rather, he’s buoyed up by them.
When we meet him, all walls are up. The force of personality aims to impress Ken and keep him in his place. It’s just a defense mechanism as Mann demonstrates so nonchalantly, “You can do better than that,” later in the show, as Ken inevitably blows up. Mann has a controlled approach to the madness boiling inside Rothko. There is no question fear drives him, but it’s desperation, too. When Ken asks him how he knows a painting is finished, he answers in the most matter of fact tones: “When every brushstroke is filled with tragedy.” The script manages to pack a tremendous amount of information into a short period as a result of the structure, and revelations come fairly obvious and are well-used.
What makes it sizzle and crackle with life is Mann and Basquill’s choice not to fall into obvious traps. The entire script easily could be performed at top volume with the two of them shouting at each other for 90 minutes. They rarely raise their voices—Ken only once and Rothko, though he speaks with passion and emphasis, is not actually shouting. Rather, he’s trying to release and formulate the power that propels him.
Basquill as Ken is an inspired choice, both artistically and realistically. The prolific local actor has starred in musical and non-singing shows playing principal characters. His face is far from new to Wilmington audiences, but this is the first time I have seen him in a role of this magnitude. For the role to encompass coming into your own as an artist, is especially appropriate. One of Basquill’s standard offstage communication techniques is to flash a disarming smile, get a laugh, and swing things his way or diffuse an uncomfortable situation. His lack of humor in “Red” surprises and strongly indicates his commitment to the role. He captures the experience of working with Rothko as he discovers the legend is a vulnerable, fallible and scared human being. Perhaps that’s what makes Basquill’s work particularly compelling. His evenness creates a mirror for Rothko, and the audience to see him more clearly.
If a show about visual art is not visually stimulating, something has gone drastically amiss. Light, especially, absorbed Rothko’s mind for much of his life. The arguments about light in the Rothko Chapel caused one architect to quit. Logan’s script makes mention repeatedly of light: its uses and burdens. Lighting designer Dallas LaFon takes on the tremendous challenge to depict it without overwhelming the performers and audience. He paints his way through “Red” with light, shade and color. More than many other productions, the lighting must actively enhance the action and not distract from it. LaFon runs with the task. Straw, yellow, gold, and of course red dominate his palette, as other shades work more subtly on audience consciousness.
It beautifully complements Benedict Fancy’s set design, which is functional and vivid at the same time. Director Sam Robison comments he wants the set to look like a crime scene. Considering that in 12 years time Rothko’s studio would be the site of his suicide, it is an arresting glimpse of the future. The image of Rothko kneeling downstage center sears as his hands and wrists drip red pain. Add to it Ken’s discovery and momentary confusion, and it’s literally heart-stopping.
But the drama comes together with the two actors’ flesh pulsating blood onstage. Frustration builds as Rothko discovers Ken “hasn’t read anything!” and it hits close to home. I heard much of my own voice in him as he attempted to inspire, cajole, and shame Ken into discovering books and ideas that are the underpinning of thought in Western civilization. Rothko tells Ken he has no right to an opinion because he doesn’t know enough. It rings so true to my ears and heart. Perhaps that sounds egotistical, but it’s poignant at a time when society embraces the lowest common dominator in everything. Mann laments this in his “I’m fine!” speech and shows Rothko’s desire for discernment and judgment.
It truly gratifies to see “Red” in a full theatre. It explores the questions society needs to continue to ask about art, life, work, and purpose. More so, it’s wonderful to see all the elements come together—text, direction, acting, design—to create something worthwhile.
Red Barn Studio, 122 S. 3rd St.
July 10th-13th, 17th-20th, 24th-26th
Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.