Red by John Logan. Directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
I will make it a temple!"
Charles Socarides and Tim Daly; photo: Taylor Crichton
When artist Mark Rothko was 55 years old he accepted a commission to create a mural surround for the new Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagrams Building which had just been designed by Mies Van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson. It was to be Rothko's ultimate triumph, a room where the rich and famous would dine surrounded by his red, black and white oil paintings, paintings designed to both open their minds to the true meaning of art and at the same time disgust them with rich colors and symmetrical emotional depictions of the world they inhabited. He never completed the commission and he never gave a valid reason for this decision. The play, "Red," currently opening the season at the Dorset Playhouse in Vermont deals with the years between those two moments in Rothko's career.
A 101 performance wonder in New York in 2010, the play went on to win six Tony Awards. It starred Alfred Molina who had also been in the play "Art," about a white painting, which also won many awards. "Red" was a different sort of play one in which the philosophy of art was not discussed but rather lived on stage.
In Dorset Rothko is played by Tim Daly. Actually it is more a sense that Rothko is telling his story through the actor who is barely even evident in this play. Daly is so effective in voice, gesture and stance playing the artist that the actor completely disappears into the man he portrays. It is the wonder of live performance when a familiar face and voice gets lost inside the character. He is so effective in the part that you don't even stop to think how wonderful a performance Daly is giving here. It is just a reality that his Rothko feels real and alive. Of all the performances I have seen Daly give on stage and on television, this is the only time I have regretted not seeing Tim Daly. This Mark Rothko is Tim Daly's masterpiece.
Playing his part time assistant, Ken, is an actor whose credits read like my television schedule, although I do not recognize him from those shows I like. The actor is Charles Socarides and he is playing the perfect foil and at the same time the sounding wall for Rothko's rages and fits of brilliance. When, late in the show Ken confronts his idolized boss with some dark truths about Rothko's work and mindset, Socarides takes up and uses the cudgel of judgmental truths with just the right amoung of edgy force. He is equally moving telling his story of a destroyed childhood and in these and other moments in the play he is a fine match for Daly's Rothko.
On a set representing Rothko's Bowery studio designed wonderfully by John McDermott the two men grapple with and support one another in an environment that fights and supports the actors as well. As pieces move and their uses become clear, the set becomes more and more devoid of its basic trappings just as the two men become less and less self-composed.
Charles Schoonmaker's late 1950s costumes were just right and Michael Gianitti's lighting gave physical life to the paintings that surround the players. The constant use of phonograph records, in a sound cue system designed by M.L. Dogg, was appropriate and appreciated.
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt has clearly worked long and hard with this 78 minute play for what she has placed on the stage is a polished gem with rough, hard edges that cut like knives through the darkness inside both of these men. She has revealed truths from within rather than letting a talky play divulge information as a text book would do. That Daly can disappear into Rothko and Socarides open up new interest in his future work is due to the controls and the passageways dictated to them by the director. All three of them have clearly worked with an early understanding of the goals before them and their success with this piece is beautiful example of collegial work.
"Red" is one of those plays that asks a great deal of its audience. We have to care about Mark Rothko and I don't believe many people do after all this time. We have to let go of any prejudices about art in order to understand how one generation after another, one movement after another crushes what came before it. We have to want Rothko to be nice and accept him when he cannot do it. We have to experience "Red," know the color for all its values before we can take sides as to its use and importance and meaning. This play is deep, the production is a clarifier and the combination is excellent entertainment.
White Stripe by Mark Rothko
Tim Daly and Charles Socarides; photo: Taylor Crichton
Red plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival, located at 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vermont through July 6. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line to www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.