The Columbus premiere of John Logan's, "Red" fell on Valentine's Day, but the 2010 Tony Award winning play's only lover's obsession is that of artist Mark Rothko's relationship with his own art. The intensely intellectual two-man play stars Kevin McClatchy as the mid 20th Century painter, and Tim Simeone as Ken, his recently hired assistant. "Red" details the two year span of Rothko's career in which he was working on a commissioned series of paintings for the new Four Seasons Restaurant in the posh Park AvenueSeagramBuilding. "What do you see?" begins Rothko, and as such, the audience gets an extraordinary opportunity to see an artist seeing his own work, a perspective that proves entrancing, profound, and deeply heart-wrenching.
The 1950's New York Bowery studio of Rothko is breathtaking and realistically created by set designer, Michael S. Brewer. The floor to ceiling brick facades and authentic-looking iron pipes, combined with 10 foot tall canvases in various stages of creation immediately transport the audience to the eye of its artist in his studio. It takes a moment to take in the intricacy of the set, and the props, along with Rothko's signature classical music playing, provide the perfect blend of chaotic process and sacred creative space.
Kevin McClatchy delivers an absolutely stellar performance as the arrogant, self-consumed, genius painter Rothko. Rothko is largely an abhorrent figure- oppressive to a fault, determined to impart not only his artistic, but also his philosophical and randomly interpreted ethical code on the few people he allows contact, but McClatchy delivers the ferocity that is Rothko's art with careful undertones of depression, desperation, and sadness that make him fascinating. Watching his character unfold becomes much like watching the brushstrokes of one of his paintings develop, layer by layer, before your eyes. Tim Simeone, is fantastically compelling as Rothko's assistant, Ken. Though Rothko emphatically states, "I am not your teacher. I am your employer.", the play spends much of its dialogue with the two engaged in spiraling circles of didacticism and cultural volleying from Shakespeare to Nietzsche, Socrates to Freud, and everything in between. Simeone is a visual dead-ringer for his Broadway counterpart, Eddie Redmayne, and does an outstanding job imparting some vulnerability while maintaining an admirable philosophic dueling partner for Rothko's increasing arrogance and angst. Director Jimmy Bohr did a superb job casting these two powerhouse performers, and CATCO again proves that with big talent, a small cast is no issue.
The play itself is cerebral and enthralling, and as much as Ken, the audience tries desperately to understand the inner workings of artist Rothko's mind as he struggles with not only the creation of his paintings, but their future, with almost paternal concern, "like sending a blind child into a room full of razor blades". While Ken is an entirely fictional creation, he lends a conscience to Rothko, and an insight into the artist's untimely death by suicide in 1970. Ken becomes Rothko's muse, to which he entreats, "shake your fist, talk their ear off- make them LOOK!" The entire production is deep, fast-paced, and so well-crafted by its lead actors that it's impossible to even contemplate looking away.
The stage crew did a masterful job transitioning scenes carefully and quickly- no small feat with powdered paint color thrown, 12 foot tall canvases, and numerous brushes and buckets of wet paint. The play ends with an expert lighting touch by Lighting Designer, Jarod Wilson, the show's only total blackout during its 90 minute run, signifying not only the end of the show, but Rothko's greatest fear that, "One day the black will swallow the red."
Tying this Columbus premiere to Rothko's current exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art (running now through May 26th) was a masterful touch of collaboration, and an excellent prelude to the show itself as it features Rothko's works from just prior to the Four Seasons' murals depicted in the show. CATCO has really raised the bar in local theater this season, not only with such dynamic collaborative efforts, but with increasingly thought-provoking productions that also leave their audiences deeply moved, and "Red" is no exception.
CATCO's "Red" presents its "tragedy in every brushstroke" at The Riffe Center, Studio One at 77 S High St, Columbus, OH 43215, February 13-March 3rd, with shows on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, and special matinee performances on Wednesdays at 11am. For ticket pricing and ordering info, go to: http://catco.org/shows/2012-2013/red