First show of season, Red, sets the bar high

Plays are often about listening to the proverbial tight-rope of the ebb of relationship and the flow of language.

With its bold, rich writing, “Red” û John Logan’s Tony Award-winning drama about artist Mark Rothko and an assistant currently being performed by SHSU’s theatre department û upholds this value to the highest degree.

“Red” was first produced by the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2009. The original production was directed by Michael Grandage and performed by Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his fictional assistant Ken. The production, along with its two leads, transferred to Broadway at the John Golden Theatre for a limited engagement which began March 2010 and closed in June. It was the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Play. Additionally, Redmayne won a 2010 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play.

Red paints the vivid picture of master abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, who has just landed the biggest commission in the history of modern art, a series of murals for New York’s famed Four Seasons Restaurant. For the next couple of years, Rothko with his assistant, Ken, in his studio on the Bowery. Rothko realizes his biggest accomplishments could be his undoing when Ken finally gets the courage to confront him.

Before you even make out the shape of his body, you can feel the intensity of his person as he stares hard at the painting in front of him. “What do you see?” he asks in the play’s first line, with a sense of urgency that is part hope and part despair. It’s impossible as an audience member not to feel privileged to be able to see an artist embrace his own work.

Portraying the artist Mark Rothko is Tyler Martin, a senior musical theatre major. Martin is charged with the daunting task of commanding the space as only Rothko’s gravitas can. Much of Red unfolds as a combative Socratic dialogue between teacher and student about the purpose of Rothko’s art and art itself.

Through debate and self-discussion, Martin truly paints his language with such vibrant and interesting colors just as Rothko would with his paintings. More than any stage work I can recall, Red captures the relationship between an artist and his creations. As Rothko thinks about his paintings hanging inside the Four Seasons restaurant, he regards them as his children hoping that they will forgive him. Martin feeds the audience with this moment of vulnerability that is so surprisingly and subtly perfect. His feelings are not just parental, but beautifully obsessive as you can see the Martin’s feverish eyes so clearly as he looks out at the unseen painting between the audience and the stage.

Rothko’s own work, designed by the talented senior theatre design major Marissa Hetzer. The relationship between artist and his art is the most touched on by Logan. But there is another relationship that fills the play with dialogue, confrontation and resolution. The relationship with Rothko and his young prot?g?, Ken. Logan presents this younger voice of the non-radical, new generation of young artists that threatens Rothko’s reign over art.

Ken is there to challenge Rothko’s dislike of hugely popular artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, and to totally contradict Rothko’s mission to hang contemplative paintings in a “temple of consumption” like the Four Seasons.

Brandon Whitley, a junior musical theatre major who plays the role of Ken, has a unique stage presence, neither over nor under whelming. He is able to hold his own against Martin’s explosive and dramatic Rothko. Ken has to be able to challenge Rothko and yet never indulges the artist in screaming matches. He always makes sure to react without becoming too heavily burdened with a horrific back-story that influences certain neediness to his character that creates the overall conflict between him and Rothko.

Whitley brings this out extremely sparingly, making it not only easy for the audience to recognize, but for Martin to fully react to. The greatest moment was during the final scene when Whitley and Martin’s characters seem to switch roles, Whitley’s Ken begins to trump Martin’s Rothko when he fully devotes himself to disproving Rothko’s beliefs and finally exposing his natural artist ego to become intellectually equal with Rothko. After this happens and still holding your breath expecting Rothko to beat Ken within an inch of his life, Rothko relieves the audience.

“This is the first time you’ve existed. See you in the morning.”

Though both actors did wonderfully, no credit can be taken away from the director of this play, senior theatre major Matt Stepan, who grew the characters of Ken and Rothko in a very intense rehearsal process. Through his vision and hand in every operation of this production, he has a huge success on his hands. The only sad thing is, is that it runs for only one weekend.

“Red” is openFriday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. with a matinee at 2:00 p.m. General admission tickets are $10 and student discounts at $5. For more information or to reserve tickets, visit the SHSU University Theatre Center Box Office or call at (936) 294-1339.

This play gets 4 paws out of 5.General Admission tickets: $10. For more information or to reserve tickets, visit the SHSU University Theatre Center Box Office or call at (936) 294-1339

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