Why, do you suppose, can you count on two hands the number of plays about visual artists? Simple reason: Famous or not, the day-to-day life of an artist is essentially as boring as watching paint dry. Literally, too.
Steve Martin had modest success with Picasso at the Lapin Agile, in the early 1990s. It was quirky enough, due mostly to Martin's wit and imagination, and a cast of improbable characters to hold an audience's attention and some critics' praise. And there's Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, about pointillist Georges Seurat, which won awards and critics' adulation. Digress a bit to the big screen, and what did Pollock, The Agony and the Ecstasy and Lust for Life offer viewers? Without Jackson Pollock's alcoholic rage, Vincent Van Gogh's wild-eyed self-mutilation or Michelangelo's tenacity and snappy comebacks, these stories would bore an audience silly. Even if you enjoy a delicious tragedy, there seems to be only so much you can say or show about visual art and its perpetrators.
That brings us to John Logan's award-winning Red, about acclaimed abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko, making its area premiere at Dallas Theater Center, in collaboration with the Dallas Museum of Art. Even Rothko fans may have wondered how entertaining the quasi-tragic story of a meticulous painter of color fields—rectangles, even—could be.
You might be surprised, then, when it turns out Red is a compelling, two-character play with wondrous aspects, enough historical accuracy to please the purists, and noteworthy performances by Brierley Resident Acting Company member Kieran Connolly, as Rothko, and Jordan Brodess, as his fictional studio assistant, Ken. The dialogue is rich and interesting throughout, owing to Logan's masterful turn of a phrase and his apparent fascination with human frailty and relationships, career success and frustration.
The first glimmer of genius in this show comes from the staging and scenic design, created by Bob Lavallee. In the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Wyly Theatre, on the ninth floor in a smallish rehearsal/workshop space, Lavallee has crafted an amazingly true-to-life artist's studio, and the much smaller-than-usual audience is seated within it. Patrons sit so close to the action that an errant paintbrush, thrown in a tantrum by Connolly, can skim the toes of the patrons in the front rows. With retro furniture and costumes, designed by Jennifer Ables, the studio/stage is set for 1958, approximately, and a life/career crisis that illustrates the tragic aspects of Rothko's real life.
The elements of stagecraft work very well together in this production, and form an unusually important part of the overall impact. Lighting plays a vital role, moving the audience from one day to the next, highlighting the painting in progress and setting the basement feel to the room. Lighting designer Aaron Johnson handles the requirements with an innovator's skill. Music helps punctuate the story's moodiness, with sound design by Nate Flanigan that includes a mid-1950s console center stage in this in-the-round, or rather in-the-rectangle, configuration.
Red opens with a quiet moment: Connolly is seated in front of a huge, red painting—a rectangle within a rectangle of color. He is looking, pondering, studying; paralyzed for several minutes. Connolly's portrayal effortlessly moves from Rothko's ferocity, intense silence and rare sensitivity through the play. Brodess is the shy, young artist who begins an apprenticeship with the master painter in the guise of menial art studio work—the mixing, the pouring, the lining up, the tearing down, the cleaning up.
The two men represent every conceivable imbalance of power—older and younger, mature and immature, experienced and novice, outspoken and quiet, ferocious and meek, successful and untried. This is the essence of the story, and the balance of power moves back and forth in a testament to the real intricacies of human relationships.
Connolly and Brodess inhabit their respective roles with great skill—their interactions are believable, the delivery of abundant lines of dialogue natural, and the range of expressions, tics and hand-wringing support the characterizations.
For Rothko, Connolly constructs a man near the end of his career, with attendant softness, self-criticism, fury and self-awareness. He is at once the self-absorbed artistic celebrity and a desperately lonely man. Brodess has a big challenge, too, portraying a shy, self-effacing acolyte who eventually comes into his own. Brodess has a terrifying reveal about midway through the play, and his exposition is breathtaking.
While the dialogue tells the story, director Joel Ferrell enlivens the occasionally tedious conversations with some physical storms, building to a crescendo with a frenzied scene in which the two men paint a large canvas right before the audience's eyes. There's also a memorable staccato-delivered exchange that gets the audience laughing as the two men compete, each trying to name more red things than the other.
You don't really have to know much about Rothko's life or be particularly infatuated with visual art to get something special out of Red. You'll be challenged by the give-and-take of relationships and the puzzling quirks of people. There's an artful takeaway, too; still, what sticks with you isn't so much about color and aesthetics as it is about the human experience.
◊ Learn more about the Dallas Theater Center and Dallas Museum of Art's collaboration, including the upcoming "Red In Depth," here.