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Theatrical Outfit's Red paints intense portrait of Mark Rothko

Rothko play has audiences seeing Red, in a good way

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In 1958, abstract expressionist Mark Rothko agreed to paint a series of murals for a new Manhattan luxury restaurant, the Four Seasons. The $35,000 commission confirmed Rothko's rise as a major painter. It also attempted an unlikely marriage between status-conscious haute cuisine and the artist's uncompromising approach to his art as more than mere decoration.

The Four Seasons commission provides both a chronological marker and a dramatic catalyst for John Logan's play Red. Red spans two years of Rothko's life while confined to the artist's cavernous studio, and largely brings out the virtues of biographical plays while avoiding their flaws. At Theatrical Outfit's impassioned production, Red conjures up the personality and ideas of an important historical figure without restoring to a perfunctory checklist of his life's highlights.

Red's early scenes could almost be a Rothko monologue play as the stern, mercurial artist (Theatrical Outfit artistic director Tom Key) uses his new assistant, Ken (Jimi Kocina), as a sounding board and captive audience. An aspiring young painter with a childhood tragedy, Ken gradually reveals more of his character and dares to challenge his intimidating boss.

Red makes a reasonable assumption that the theater-goers will have some interest in the era's art scene. The production occasionally has some tangents that appeal to insiders, such as a discussion about whether Rothko and his recently deceased friend Jackson Pollock represented Apollonian vs. Dionysian approaches to aesthetics. Rothko takes everything personally, even the rise and fall of artistic movements. He smugly admits, "We destroyed Cubism. No one can paint a cubist painting today," but bristles at the idea that Pop Art is coming up fast to challenge the Abstract Expressionists.

Last fall director David De Vries starred in Theatrical Outfit's Freud's Last Session, and seems to relish working with a more visceral play from recent history. Where Key normally projects sunny idealism, De Vries brings out the actor's darker intensity. Key's Rothko proves capable of wild mood swings: When Ken accidentally distracts him while mixing some paint, he throws a tantrum, and the heat of Key's delivery is as shocking as the cruelty of the words.

Logan also penned the screenplays of Hugo and Coriolanus and co-wrote Rango, making him nearly as ubiquitous in 2011 cinema as Jessica Chastain. The writer takes care to speak to bigger issues than Rothko's day-to-day concerns. When the painter excoriates the popular habit of describing everything as "fine" or "nice," he could be any artist or teacher exhorting a younger generation to think more, pay more attention, and set high personal standards. Red's Rothko reminds fans and critics alike not to accept a simple, reductive stereotype of great, complex thinkers.

Red has fun with the play as an art appreciation class, and in one scene, Rothko and Ken prime a canvas by painting it with a coat of brown as quickly as possible, while Mozart plays on the artist's hi-fi. The set includes reproductions of Rothko's work such as large studies in red or brown, offset by darker rectangles. Lighting designer Joseph A. Futral conveys the artist's fussiness about illumination. Rothko felt that a soft, dimly lit room could bring out the nuances of his paintings, while harsh sunlight made them more flat and plain. The production takes a similar approach to its portrait of Rothko, as his most important qualities emerge from an emotional darkness.

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