New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through July 7, 2012
by Kait Rankins
Director Sam Rush has put together a masterpiece in New Century Theatre's production of John Logan's "Red."
Buzz Roddy stars as abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, presenting him as an aging lion - aggressive, set in his views of what art should mean and who is fit to consume it. He has been commissioned by the Four Seasons to create a series of murals for the dining room. For $35,000, it is the ultimate sellout, but he stubbornly attempts to justify the choice to take the work while he holes himself up in his studio with his paintings and classical music.
Justin Fuller plays his assistant Ken, starting as a nervous and over-eager painter who comes to work for Rothko, mixing paints and stretching canvases. As he both learns from and clashes with Rothko, he blossoms into a grown man and finds his strength of character.
The play deals with and debates the nature of art as Rothko and his assistant interact and work in the studio over the course of two years. With paint splashed on almost every worn-in surface, there is no hint that setk/costume designer Claire DeLiso created this space for a play: Rothko's basement studio full of carefully-controlled lighting (by Dan Rist) is a living, breathing environment that seems too intimate for a theatrical set. The cigarettes and food are real, the sink has a working faucet. Red paint sloshes in buckets, drips from brushes, and covers the actors, who move through the studio like they truly work as artists there. The tactile realism of the production is what makes it a successful one, breaking up Rothko's lengthy intellectual speeches and causing the script to come off as honest rather than pretentious.
The master/apprentice plot of "Red" is not surprising. The basic themes are common, familiar, and predictable, but the beautiful writing, immersive environment, and nuanced actors are what set it apart. Roddy and Fuller has the audience invested as their relationship develops and unfolds. Fuller's Ken could have been overshadowed by Roddy's more aggressive Rothko, but Fuller doesn't back down. Each actor knows how to give as well as take, maintaining a balance that keeps the audience transfixed. At 89-minutes without intermission, the play moves quickly and seamlessly through highs and lows, screaming and silence, the red and black that are thematic throughout.
"Red" is tour de force not to be missed.