John Logan’s 2009 Tony Award-winning Red possesses ambitions both intimate and impossible. Its subject: the very nature of art itself, one’s motives for creating it and its place in the world once it’s been created. Fortunately, the play’s tight construction ensures that its lofty thematic aspirations are not hopelessly out of reach.
A satisfactory 90-minute treatise on Red’s themes hardly seems feasible, but the play works because of a laser-like focus on the verbal sparring of its two characters. They wrestle with these ideas about art but also with their conceptions of each other, resulting in a tale that explores humanity and creativity quite effectively.
Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of Red, now onstage through March 24, is an assured staging of the play, which pits abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (Denis Arndt) against a fictional young assistant, Ken (Connor Toms). As the play begins, Rothko is in the midst of fulfilling a lucrative commission for a series of murals for the brand new Four Seasons Restaurant. Ken, an aspiring painter, is just grateful to be in the same room as Rothko.
But as inspiring a figure as he might be, Rothko isn’t the easiest to relate to, and Ken soon finds himself under frequent verbal assault for his ideas about art and philosophy. Soon, Ken pushes back, questioning Rothko’s apparent contempt for his audience and his current foray into commercially driven work. Logan’s words snap; there’s an assaultive cadence to the language that keeps the pace fleet.
The direction by Richard E. T. White also helps inform the rat-a-tat pacing; the downtime between the pair’s conversations is elided by a number of significant set changes performed by the cast themselves. Canvases are rearranged, tables are moved, lamps are swiveled—Kent Dorsey’s expansive scenic design and Robert Peterson’s highly detailed lighting design equip the actors with the necessary tools. The dynamic energy of these interstitials is a welcome physical analog to the brawling of the minds taking place during the main acts.
Ultimately though, Red is an actors’ showcase, and both Arndt and Toms are clearly relishing the opportunity. Arndt imbues his Rothko with just enough warmth to offset the crank and yet not turn the man into a cuddly teddy bear by the end. Toms convincingly builds a character whose enthusiasm gives way to frustration on the path to emotional and artistic maturity.
Red may not be a terribly weighty examination of the nature of art, but it’s a fine piece of theater nonetheless. Seattle Rep’s strong production certainly does it justice.
Tickets for Red, which is on stage Wednesdays through Sundays, are available for purchase online.