Who: Geva Theatre Center ESL Wilson Stage Series
Where: Elaine P. Wilson Stage
When: Oct. 20-Nov. 15
Geva Theatre Center’s latest installment of the ESL Wilson Stage Series invites outsiders into the studio of Mark Rothko, in. In John Logan’s “Red.”
Stephen Caffrey and John Ford-Dunker deliver power performances beneath Robert Koharchik’s highly detailed scenic design. Directed by Skip Greer, “Red” depicts the relationship between late abstract expressionist Rothko (Caffrey) and his young assistant, Ken (Ford-Dunker). As Rothko finds himself ushered out of the art world to make room for a younger generation of artists, including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Ken aids Rothko in creating a series of paintings for famed New York City restaurant, Four Seasons. In doing so, Rothko’s willingness to sell out is questioned and his inner demons are revealed.
The challenge of “Red” is to maintain momentum and hold the audience’s attention with only two actors and one set. Caffrey and Ford-Drunker not only met this challenge, but exceeded in creating two complex characters that constantly challenged each other, as well as themselves.
This was done with the help of a third character: Koharchik’s dynamic scenic design. The expansive design nearly touched the first row of the house, blurring the line between where the scenery ends and the audience begins. At the surface, the set appeared to be mainly Rothko’s expansive, but dirty, studio. But, as the play progressed, it acted as a sort of canvas for Rothko and Ken, as they laid both their emotions and artwork onstage.
Giving the impression that he had been hard at work hours before the audience arrived, Rothko’s obsession with the color red was indicated through varying traces of red throughout the set. Red could be found anywhere from paint splatters on the stage down to the tip of the tiny paint brushes scattered throughout his workspace.
As the tension heightened between Rothko and Ken, the props and scenery responded in tandem. This began as Rothko angrily threw fistfuls of red powder at Ken and continued as both artists dipped their paint brushes into paint and water, unafraid to let stray droplets collide with their costumes and the scenery as well.
The height of the action took place while Rothko and Ken blanketed a mammoth canvas, which covered most of center stage, in red paint. In a cinematic sequence that resembled a movie montage, Rothko and Ken frantically covered every inch of white in red paint. Once again, droplets of red careened throughout the scenery until the canvas was covered and the two artists collapsed in exhaustion.
This action helped bring both Rothko and his art to life, creating a realistic atmosphere. It became not just a play, but a live exhibit of an artist in his natural habitat.
It was this dynamic action that kept the audience engaged for the full one hour and 43 minutes. With some help from Koharchik’s scenic design, Caffrey and Ford-Dunker delivered powerful performances that asked pertinent questions about life, death and art.