Syracuse Stage produces a fiery ‘Red’

Red
By John Logan
Who Syracuse Stage
Where Archbold Theater
820 East Genesee Street, Syracuse
When March 7-25
Tickets $18 – $50
Review Aasimah Navlakhi

Red.
What is it to you?
Sunsets, or fire? Roses, or a slash of the wrist? Santa Claus, or Satan?

For much of John Logan’s Red, my brain was frantically working on conjuring answers to the questions that were flung across the stage, between Mark Rothko (the unflinching Joseph Graves), and his assistant, the young hopeful, Ken (Matthew Amendt).

The play, set on the Bowery in New York city in the late 1950s, is a conversation, rocking back and forth with an imminent rhythm like brushstrokes on a canvas.

Rothko, a Russian-American painter, is part of the dying breed of abstract expressionists, believing that a painting must have “tragedy in every brushstroke” and dismissing Warholian soup cans as, “disposable, like Kleenex.” Stoic, orderly, desperate and misunderstood, Graves embodies Rothko in one fluid motion at the opening of the play, with his line, “What do you see?” that encompasses all of the angst, hope, desperation and genius that is Mark Rothko.

When we meet him, he has just undertaken a commission to paint a collection of 40 murals for the newly constructed Four Season’s restaurant, for a fee of $35,000 – he makes it clear at the beginning of the play that “all artist’s should starve – except me.”

He hires an assistant, Ken (Amendt), to help him with stretching canvases, applying base coats, mixing paints, cleaning brushes and picking up food and cigarettes. As they work together in Rothko’s studio, they embark on a series of whimsical, intense, philosophical and, at times, maniacal conversations that give the audience a sneak peek into the workings of a brilliant, but troubled artistic mind.

In many ways, Ken gives voice to a new age of artists, challenging expressionism and advocating Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol as reflecting “this moment right now, and a little bit of tomorrow,” and pointing out that Rothko and his kind were being made obsolete much in the way that they had killed Cubism.

Frequently during the play, Ken and Rothko explode in spurts of brilliance. Working seamlessly together, Ken is calm, assuring, and clear-headed during Rothko’s bouts of freneticism, and Rothko is provocative and encouraging, leading Ken away from mere youthful hot bloodedness into a realm of self-discovery and enlightenment.

For a large part of the play, I felt like I was on a psychiatrist’s couch, with questions like “What do you see?” and “What do you feel?” being asked, over and over again, pulsating on stage much like the paint on Rothko’s canvas. I felt challenged. And humbled. And awed.

Joseph Graves (as Rothko) in Red at Syracuse Stage. Photographer: Michael Davis.

The set, designed by William Bloodgood, was gritty, real and superbly executed, maneuvered dexterously by the actors (kudos to director, Penny Metropulos), whose performances were honest, sincere and well-delivered.

But, although predictable at times, and redundant at others, the script is what pulled the audience to their feet and drew in the thunderous applause.

In all, Metropulos has taken a daring and challenging script and presented it with conviction and integrity. And, if Rothko is right, and art requires the viewer in order to be complete, I urge you to go partake of this transaction, and rest assured, you won’t come away short-changed.

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