Thursday, June 19, 2014

Renegade Theater's RED Proves Worthy of John Logan's Masterful Play

Ken: Do you ever get tired of telling people what art is? 
Rothko: Never.

It's a sunrise. It's a throbbing heart. It's a crimson sea, a flaming rose, a cardinal, a cherry, an apple, a blushed wine.... No, it's RED, the 2010 Winner of the Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway. And for the next two weeks you can see it here at Duluth's Teatro Zuccone June 19-21 and 26-28. No, wait. You should go out of your way to see it here.

When RED first appeared on Broadway I knew I wanted to experience it. I didn’t know then that I would get the opportunity so soon. The play by John Logan has been brought to life here in the Twin Ports by the Renegade Theater and with exceptional results. Directed by Anika Thompson, the two-man show features Jody Kujawa as the painter Mark Rothko and Paul LaNave as Ken, his assistant. Both deliver with excellence in a performance that really should not be missed if you are in any way associated with the arts. But you don't have to be part of the arts to enjoy this show. It is both entertaining and thought-provoking, and a worthy contribution to the local theater scene.

This is Thompson’s eighth production as a director with the Renegade Theater Company. Congrats for the manner in which you pulled this off. When it arrived in New York it received plenty of critical acclaim, but the challenge of a two-man show covering ninety minutes seems somewhat daunting to me, but they did it, achieving it in an utterly compelling manner.

As an art student back in the early seventies I was more than familiar with Mark Rothko and the abstract expressionist movement of which he was a part. The play Red takes place at a critical juncture in his career as he has captured a major commission to decorate a dining room at the prestigious Four Seasons restaurant on Park Avenue in Manhattan. This play deals with events over the two year period he worked on this project with his assistant Ken.

Red opens with Ken staring at a painting (actually, toward the audience as if at a painting) and the master painter asking, “What do you see?”

From the start this is a recurring theme in the play. What do you see? Not only when you look at a painting, but ultimately, when you look at your life… and its context in the larger scheme of things. At the beginning, Ken is looking at a painting. By the end, the audience is looking at the meaning of art, of life, of experience, of values, and more.

Ken, who never does have a last name and whom we never really know much about other than he also has aspirations as a painter, has been hired to assist Rothko on his project, 8–5, five days a week. The ninety minutes of performance help us to seamlessly bridge two years in their relationship.

There are many, many pearls in this script. Rothko provides plenty, but Ken ultimately turns the tables and cannot be taken for granted.

“Art is more than painting techniques… to become an artist one must become civilized,” Rothko says early on. “To become civilized one must learn. To surmount the past you must know the past.” Philosophy, religion, history, literature… all these are building blocks toward making the artist. It’s not just learning the color wheel or how to apply paint on a surface, the master painter declares.

Rothko’s method or approach to his work reminds me in some ways of my own. He puts paint on the surface, and then waits till he knows what to do next. “I have to study them,” he says. “Most of painting is thinking. Only 10% is throwing paint on the canvas.” I can relate to that sentiment.

The play itself has a nice blend of lighter moments to take any edge of the serious content. In one soliloquy Rothko is allowing the play of names to roll across his tongue, the way he imagines some future critic will recite it. “Rembrandt and Rothko. Rembrandt and Rothko. Rothko and Rembrandt. Rothko and Rembrandt and Turner.” The enormity of his ego is portrayed in both a comic and tragic light.

The play works in part because Ken is an equally interesting character who doesn’t just exist to be Rothko’s foil. By the play’s end he becomes a symbol of youth in that classic sense who must do battle against his elders to create the next wave, whatever that may be. In Rothko’s time it was the Pop movement emerging, something the old painter despised and couldn’t comprehend. “Who will be looking at a Warhol in 100 years for God’s sake?” Ahem…

Ironically, I saw the world more like Rothko than Ken when I was young. I’d wholeheartedly bought into the abstract expressionists. I did not understand Pop. I did, however, appreciate the go-betweens like Rauschenburg, Larry Rivers and such. Today we have artists like Jeff Koons testing our boundaries, not only creating buzz but a rather sizable nest egg.

There is plenty of discussion in the play about the meaning of art, how paintings are experienced and what makes them live. And the recurring theme… what do you see? How does it make you feel? And why?

The play addresses issues of meaning and values as well as fame, Pollock’s suicide and tragedy. It is beautifully done, inspired and inspiring. Like the artist himself, it aspires to greatness, and the cast does an admirable job of stretching toward the same.

Quick note about the set. Nicely done. Kudos to local artist Andy Frye, who also happens to have a few of his paintings in the hallway outside the theater entrance. Maybe you can own one in your own dining room somewhere.

What: RED
Where: Teatro Zuccone in the Zeitgeist Arts Building
When: June 19-21 & 26-28
What to do: See it.

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Featured eBook of the Day: The Red Scorpion
Photos by Ed Newman

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