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Art expressed well in psychodrama 'Red'
THEATER, BY BOB ABELMAN
Art expressed well in psychodrama 'Red'
"Wait," says Mark Rothko, the eminent abstract expressionist painter, to his young assistant. "Stand closer. You've got to get close. Let it pulsate. Let it work on you. Closer. Too close."
Staring into the audience as if one of his emotionally raw black-on-red painted canvases was hanging overhead, Rothko continues:
"There. Let it spread out. Let it wrap its arms around you; let it embrace you, filling even your peripheral vision so nothing else exists or has ever existed or will ever exist. Let the picture do its work. But work with it. Meet it halfway, for God's sake! Lean forward, lean into it. Engage with it! Now, what do you see?"
So begins the 2010 Tony Award-winning, two-person, one-act play "Red," by John Logan, currently in production at the Cleveland Play House.
The play is an intriguing profile of an important American artist from the 1950s. It is also a beautifully written treatise on the painful, personal psychodrama that is the creation of art, as well as an entertaining tutorial on the art of art appreciation.
In some ways, "Red" is not unlike "My Name is Asher Lev," a marvelous play by Aaron Posner that was staged by the Cleveland Play House a year ago. Both plays offer an intimate, insider's perspective on the artist's cloistered world. Both explore how the isolated artist is still impacted by life, with the fictitious Asher Lev's heritage blockading his artistic aspirations and Mark Rothko's tragic childhood experiences in the Jewish ghetto of tsarist Russia informing his.
"Red" is not unlike Stephen Sondheim's musical "Sunday in the Park with George," which dissects the creative process, bit by bit, of impressionist painter Georges Seurat. In fact, "Red" uses dialogue to create distinctive and often disquieting rhythms and vivid imagery the way Mr. Sondheim, who this play is dedicated to, uses lyrics and music.
Of course, "Red" offers its own story, which is about the passionate relationship between a man -- one gruff, cerebral, unconditionally egotistical man -- and his art. And, as this play clearly documents and more than amply exhibits during its 90 minutes of uninterrupted dialogue, this man was a wordy fellow for a visual artist. And very set in his ways for an abstract expressionist.
This Cleveland Play House co-production with New Jersey's George Street Playhouse, under Anders Cato's intuitive and delicate direction, tells this story beautifully.
Bob Ari, as Rothko, is a force to be reckoned with.
He is immediately inaccessible and thoroughly unlikable but all the while intriguing and intense. Just as wet paint changes its hue and luminosity over time and in a different light, so too does Mr. Ari's Rothko. He becomes increasingly comprehendible -- which is a product of the writing -- and less enigmatic -- which is largely achieved through Mr. Ari's craftsmanship. The moments when he stands before a painting -- listening, vulnerable, waiting for it to speak to him and guide his next brush stroke -- are mesmerizing.
Randy Harrison plays Rothko's assistant during the two years of the artist's commissioned work on a series of mural panels.
Mr. Harrison's Ken is interesting even in silence, absorbing Rothko's wrath and deeply camouflaged tutelage. He is wonderful when on the offensive, engaged in fierce discussions over aesthetics or serving as the voice of a new generation of artists. Ken's tragic back story is a forced contrivance (Ken is the playwright's creation, meant to give Rothko someone to talk to besides paintings and to counterbalance his world view), but Mr. Harrison handles it with great tenderness.
A pivotal moment in the play is when Rothko and Ken argue about color, resulting in both men spewing words that represent different shades of red. The scene could be played as a volatile competition, a wordplay with jagged edges. Instead, the two become engaged in a creative, collaborative exploration, which steers their relationship on a different trajectory. This choice by the seasoned performers and director plays beautifully.
Lee Savage's set is a fully functioning studio. It is more airy and bare-boned than the claustrophobic set designed for the original Broadway production, and Dan Kotlowitz's lighting is not nearly as dramatic. Initially disappointing, the payoff from the Cleveland Play House's staging comes when the open set and a flood of backlighting create a breathtaking red-and-black silhouetted still-life portrait of the artist pondering his artwork. This captures in image what is not expressed in the play's many words, much like Rothko's own works of art.
"Red" is a thoughtful, thought-provoking play, and the Cleveland Play House has created a worthy rendition of it.
"Red" continues through April 8 in Cleveland Play House's Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square. For tickets, which range from $49 to $69, call 216-241-6000.
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