PORTLAND — My artist friends often express surprise when they learn that once, in what now seems like another lifetime, I was a soldier. My response to this reaction is always the same:
“Soldiers and artists might just be the last true romantics left; they have far more in common than what’s on the surface.”
While I’d never think of comparing an infantry firefight with a day in the studio or on stage, the parallels between the two are far more subtle, yet on grand display in Portland Stage’s currently running production of John Logan’s popular play, “Red.”
The show — winner of the 2010 Tony for Best Play — is directed by Paul Mullins, as fine a helmsman as one can find on the American stage today.
The story takes us to the late-1950s New York City studio of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (Zachary Wyatt), who hires a new assistant Ken (Ross Cowan), an aspiring young artist.
Rothko, while musing a new creation, asks Ken: “What do you see?”
The answer launches both players and the audience on a journey of self-discovery, traversing the visceral bridges of both personal and professional values.
Rothko, who during his life was known as an iconoclastic curmudgeon, had received a hefty commission to provide paintings to grace the walls of the (very exclusive) Four Seasons restaurant.
Meanwhile, Ken, whose own ghosts haunt him, looks to Rothko for life guidance, yet ironically is the one who has to remind the older artist exactly where the former came from and what he has always stood for.
The common thread to this duo? The ubiquity of red paint whose tone comes through to everyone in the theatre – except Rothko.
Former real-life CIA operative Wyatt – a nice piece of casting by artistic director Anita Stewart, with no small bit of irony attached – not only delivered the proverbial goods, but was physically believable as the cantankerous Rothko. (In the original 2009 production at London’s Donmar Warehouse, Alfred Molina was a doppelganger for Rothko, right down to the round, binocular-like horn-rimmed glasses, and shining bald globe).
More than anything, Wyatt placed a death grip on how gruff and self-absorbed Rothko was in real life. It was difficult to get a concession from him on anything that mattered, particularly when it had to do with the creative process.
Wyatt huffed, puffed, and nearly blew Portland Stage down with a demeanor so cranky, that no one would fault audience members for cringing when he looked their way through the fourth wall.
The young, cherubic Cowan was a perfect contrast and complement to Wyatt’s mature irritation; he was positive but not a lightweight, and left himself room to grow along the way.
Cowan delivered the play’s seminal soliloquy with a perfect dose of passionate frustration and sarcasm, reminding us that Ken, even when pushed to the brink, was no Rothko.
Rather, Ken believed in his art and in the purity of its principles. And by holding that line, Cowan had us silently rooting for his breakthrough, whether for his own future, or against Rothko’s obstinacy.
The show ran in a single act, a crisp 82 minutes with no intermission.
Anita Stewart’s set was a compellingly surreal depiction of Rothko’s 222 Bowery studio, which enhanced the credence of Logan’s brilliant script. Costumes by Kathleen Brown were deftly rendered, right down to the period detail of Rothko’s attire – and the paint stains on his pants, even when wearing a coat and tie.
Shannon Zura’s sound followed a parallel for contemporaneous accuracy, with Chet Baker’s trumpet providing the punctuation, and the music during the canvas painting scene booming with the flow of the actors’ bodies. Finally, Stephen Jones’ excellent lighting offered up haunting – and spot on lack of brightness – in the battle with natural light for which Rothko was so well-known.
There is much backstory to this play. All of Rothko’s life as an artist, including his dogged pursuit of the establishment of the Rothko Chapel in Houston – his crowning creative tour de force – came back to the play’s opening salvo: “What do you see?”
What the audience will see is a superb performance wrapped in the harsh reality of one man’s skirmish with his life, his art, and ultimately his own demons.
That word, “skirmish,” is operative, cradling something past the known “conviction vs. commercialism” analysis common to productions of “Red.”
Underneath it all is what bestselling novelist and former Marine Stephen Pressfield (an artist and soldier occupying the same body) coined as “the inner struggle.”
It’s the storm found in every warrior who must wrestle with fear, guilt and shame. And make no mistake: we find it personified in Wyatt’s Rothko while he grapples with the (unspoken) question searing deep in his gut: “What matters more? Beauty or brushstroke?”
This makes “Red” a civil war of the senses, and Rothko’s soldier in both victory and defeat is the centerpiece.
It’s as if the famed artist found himself in Plato’s cave, knowing reality was outside in the light, yet seeing anything but red from the shadows within.
“Red” runs through April 12 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave, Portland. Tickets and info call: 207-774-0465 or visit: http://www.portlandstage.org/
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).
Stages Names is the theatre review segment of From The Stacks.
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