Like a great painting, the powerful play "Red" hits you in the heart and head — it touches your emotions and makes you think.|
Like its only characters — abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and his young (fictional) assistant, Ken — "Red" is bracing, literate, articulate and thoughtful. In the debut production of the new, ambitious QC Theatre Workshop, the bold, passionate John Logan play is brought to raw, thrilling life with sensitive, intense, immensely satisfying performances by Mike Schulz as the famous, temperamental master and Thomas Alan Taylor as his (at first) nervous, innocent apprentice.
While "Red" runs just one act, in less than two hours, it plows a lot of intellectual ground — covering a period from 1958 to 1959, when Rothko is working on a commission to create murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan's Seagram building. All the action takes place in the artist's New York studio, a converted gymnasium, especially appropriate given this production has transformed the former Johnson School gym into a sleek, visually stunning theater. We also see a number of re-creations of Rothko's red-and-black works.
Rothko is the picture of a tortured artist — demanding, prickly, moody, hyper-sensitive, and as Ken later says, titanically self-absorbed. For all the compassion he shows toward art and great artists, he displays none for Ken, failing to express interest in his life or paintings.
Rothko berates Ken from the start, telling him he is not his teacher, friend or father, only an employer; it's a cold, demeaning relationship, in which Ken is basically a slave. Yet Rothko asks his opinion of the art, ordering him to meet his paintings halfway and engage with them as if they're living. To Rothko, they actually are.
"Selling a picture is like sending a blind child into a room with razor blades — it's never been hurt before," he says of the risk and courage it takes to make something new. Later, Rothko questions his relevance, since he's being eclipsed by a wave of younger artists who are admired by Ken, like the Pop Art movement exemplified by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
He decries art that is simple, commercial and disposable, lamenting that people want things that are pretty. "Everything is not fine!" Rothko yells at his paintings, again as if they were human, his only friends. He calls them "conflicted, nuanced, troubled, diseased, doomed" — and he could be talking about himself.
"I am here to stop your heart; I'm not here to make a pretty picture," the cynical, caustic, frustrated Rothko explodes.
Mr. Schulz is authoritative, mesmerizing and committed as Rothko — as if he's possessed. He totally immerses himself in the often unlikable part — walking with a slight hunch, speaking in an intimidating, deep voice, and when he erupts in anger, it is scary. Even the facial expressions of Mr. Schulz and Mr. Taylor say much without them having to say a word.
Mr. Taylor has a smaller, more mysterious role but capably adds to the electrifying tension of the piece. You get the feeling that Ken could turn on Rothko at any time, and when he finally confronts him, you feel his relief.
Ken can't stand Rothko's endless, opinionated chattering and bullying, and cries out that everything doesn't have to be important and serious. We see Rothko's obsession with black, representing looming death, saying at one point, "There's tragedy in every brush stroke."
Director Tyson Danner notes in the program that "Red" reveals a universal truth — "In each of us, there is the red of life, vitality and hope, and there is the black of death, worry, and despair." It's all in striking the right balance. The topic of suicide is hauntingly presented in the play — Rothko despises his contemporary Jackson Pollock, partly because he was famous and drank away his life, retiring from painting.
The romantic, rebellious Pollock was killed at 44 when he crashed his car while drunk, a "lazy suicide," Rothko says. He shocks Ken by saying "When I commit suicide, there will be no doubt about it." Ken later finds him sitting on the floor with his hands drenched in red paint, thinking it's blood. In fact, Rothko did kill himself with a razor blade in his studio at age 66, after overdosing on barbiturates.
In "Red," the 2010 Best Play Tony winner, we get a glimpse into artistic creation as the two men furiously apply a base coat to a blank canvas, embodying the frantically racing Mozart that accompanies them. The music and lighting in the production are precise and affecting.
We see the conflict between what Rothko's murals represent and the superficial extravagance and luxury of the Four Seasons, as well as what ultimately happened with that project and a chilling description of what it was like to be in that restaurant, but not belong there.
Like great artists, "Red" is inspiring, and in itself a work of profoundly moving art. As is true of any art, it takes daring and bravery to bare your soul in public. Here's hoping that the adventurous QC Theatre Workshop and its innovative approach to fresh, contemporary theater has a long life.
If you go
-- What: "Red."
-- When: Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 1. Performances at 7:30 p.m.; doors open for art-gallery viewing at 6:30 p.m.
-- Where: QC Theatre Workshop, 1730 Wilkes Ave., Davenport (south of Locust Street, one block west of the Five Points intersection at Division).
-- Tickets: No set price; pay what you think it's worth. Reservations may be made at email@example.com. For more information about the show, visit the newly updated REDqc.com or facebook.com/redqc.