Great theater, like any great work of visual art, is subjective, open to interpretation and worthy of discussion that generates differing opinions. With that in mind, theater and art fans alike are likely to agree wholeheartedly and unanimously that the Gamm Theatre’s production of John Logan’s captivating play about abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, "Red," is a quintessential masterpiece.
"Red" won six 2010 Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Direction of a Play and Best Featured Actor in a Play (Eddie Redmayne). The year is 1958, and the audience is invited into Rothko’s New York City studio where he is about to begin working on a series of murals to be displayed at a posh restaurant in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue.
Rothko (Fred Sullivan, Jr.) hires a young, impressionable assistant, Ken (Marc Dante Mancini), and their time spent together is rife with comprehensive, passionate discussions of great paintings, renowned artists and the emotional complexity of the creative process.
Sullivan delivers the most illustrious performance of his career, embodying Rothko’s tortured artist persona with earnest perfection. As Rothko spars with Ken, who helps him execute his work but foremost allows him to vent and profess his earned expertise, Sullivan’s exemplary portrayal brings the brilliant artist to life, calling special attention to his affinity for darker colors and their expressions of sorrow and solemnity.
It is no wonder Rothko battled depression, which led to suicide, yet his words are sprinkled with snippets of hope, or acknowledgement, that not all worthy imagery is an extension of someone’s pain and suffering.
Mancini holds his own as Ken, no stranger to tragedy himself, who faces the uphill battle of his mentor’s profound tidal wave of emotion and egomania with willful dignity. The actor seamlessly evolves from a wide-eyed, meek admirer to a resolute, learned associate -- and reader of Nietzsche -- not afraid to share his opinion.
While the conversational script is sprinkled generously with names -- like Pollack, Rembrandt, Turner, Caravaggio -- whose works are familiar to art lovers, non-fans will still appreciate the pointed dynamic between these two men. To watch how the younger of the two reacts to being in the presence of greatness while witnessing the master having his methods examined or questioned makes for compelling theater that is informative, inquisitive and provokes thought.
Artistic Director Tony Estrella’s wise selection to stage this award-winning play, combined with his sharp direction of two outstanding performances and Michael McGarty’s extraordinarily authentic set design, likely to inspire even the stick-figure artist in all of us, accentuates three simple but extremely powerful, summative words spoken by Rothko, "Make them look."
"Red" continues through Dec. 16 at The Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI. For info or tickets, call 401-723-4266 or visit The Gamm Theatre’s website.