The beauty of theatre is that it can happen anywhere. You can create a scene without a real set. You don’t even need a formal stage. A story can come to life without props or electricity.
But every once in a while a performance space is so perfect for the play at hand that, more than anywhere else, you are instantly transported to a specific place other than the ones you’re used to, and to a specific time other than your own. It’s almost like jumping into a painting by Monet.
In Hartford, when you walk into the below-ground home of TheaterWorks at City Arts on Pearl, you can almost feel as if you’re in New York City—maybe Greenwich Village—because of its urban-cultural aura, along with the not-necessarily-modern character of the building, the staircase, even the bathrooms in the back lobby. It’s easy to think you’ve stepped back in time by a few decades and about 130 miles. And finally, when you notice the brick walls, tiny alcoves and ordered disarray of the artistic tools on stage, you can easily believe that you’re actually in the studio of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.
Which is precisely what “Red” is designed to make you think.
You know Rothko even if you don’t: he was one of the leaders of the movement in the middle of the 20th century that gave us large canvases of black on black, huge rectangular boxes of blues and greens, and of course, monoliths of red. Written by John Logan, the playwright who gave us “Never the Sinner” and “Hauptmann,” “Red” won the Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award and Drama League Award for its New York run in 2010. (It debuted in London.) The Hartford version is skillfully directed by Tazewell Thompson, who helmed a half-dozen productions at TheaterWorks, all of them well-received.
“Red” explores the complicated relationship between Rothko and his young assistant Ken (an amalgam of several of his real-life assistants) during a period in the late 1950s when Rothko was commissioned to paint murals for the posh Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building. The play mines the conflict not just between Mark and Ken, but also between Mark and his past (escaping the dark anti-Semitism of his boyhood Russia), between Ken and his past (a family revelation with plenty of darkness of its own), between expressionism and modernism, and between artistic integrity and blatant commercialism.
All that in one little urban studio stage.
It’s probably a good thing that Rothko isn’t as well-known a cultural icon as, say, Andy Warhol, because then the actor playing him would have too much of a paint-by-the-numbers job of recreating him, thereby perhaps losing some of the nuances that make for great drama and biting black humor. Now, for all we know, Jonathan Epstein is as Rothko as Rothko—and what a character he is. Abusive (both to himself and his assistant), abrasive, as intelligently reflective as he is gratingly stubborn, as expectorating in personality as he is meticulous in professionalism. A colorful performance indeed.
The same is true for Thomas Leverton as Ken. A different kind of artist from a different generation, with different needs and sensibilities, the character as played by Leverton begins in light, calm, muted shades and grows with vibrant intensity as the story proceeds.
Epstein and Leverton, with fine credits behind them (Epstein’s longer just because he’s older), both make their TheaterWorks debut with “Red.”
We learn quite a bit about both characters, their back-stories and artistic beliefs, and that’s an issue to be raised only because it’s that very fullness that makes us want to know even more—mostly about how Rothko became the tortured soul he became, why he adopted the philosophies he did, how he really felt about his assistants, and even what happens to him when the play is over. (You can, of course, find that out on your own—though the answer may put the story in an entirely different color for you, and not a very comfortable one.) What that will mean for some is that the play is entirely compelling when you see it, but somewhat of a conundrum the day after. You have to decide which is more important to you. Maybe the only way to do that is to go see it. Not a bad option.
A handful of my recent reviews (of plays at other theatres) discussed lights, sound and set in terms how distracting they were, for one reason or another. Not so with “Red.” Stephen Quandt’s lighting, J Hagenbuckle’s sound design, and Donald Eastman’s set do the play complete justice by going for, and achieving, extreme realism—instead of merely abstract expressionism.
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“Red” runs through May 6. Visit http://theaterworkshartford.org for information.
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