Review - Painters see 'Red' as they talk art

Generational clash at heart of strong play


Robb Mann (right) and Patrick Basquill star in "Red," running through July 26 at the Red Barn Studio. Photo courtesy of the Thalian Association

Published: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 at 9:04 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 at 9:04 a.m.

With bright red paint spattered on cabinets and smeared across the floor, the set for John Logan's play "Red" (at Wilmington's coincidentally named Red Barn Studio) looks like nothing so much as the scene of a brutal killing.

Facts

What: “Red,” by John Logan,presented by the Thalian Association
When: 7:30 p.m. July 10-12, 17-19 and 24-26, and 3 p.m. July 13 and 20
Where: Red Barn Studio, 1122 S.Third St., Wilmington
Tickets: $25
Details: 910-254-1788 or www.Thalian.org

Which it is in a way, for reasons that become clear as the play goes on, although not in the physically violent way the set implies.

Rather, "Red," which is being staged by the Thalian Association through July 26 under the direction of Sam Robison, features some spectacular verbal takedowns in the telling of its story about the working relationship between the noted abstract expressionist Mark Rothko (Robb Mann) and the pointedly last-nameless Ken (Patrick Basquill), an aspiring painter Rothko brings in as his assistant.

At once a saga about the mental and emotional struggle to create great art as well as the battle to keep from becoming yesterday's news, it's an intellectually stimulating production that captures much of the tension and anguish that consumes those who are driven to create. It occasionally overplays its hand, but "Red" is rarely less than absorbing over the course of its 90 intermission-free minutes.

Set in Rothko's Spartan New York studio circa 1958 and '59 – give credit to designer Benedict Fancy, director Robison and scenic artist Lance Howell for the set that's at once realistic and symbolic – "Red" focuses largely on Rothko's entertainingly abrasive personality and his seemingly uncompromising views on art. When Ken shows up wearing a suit, Rothko, who at this point is one of the top dogs in the art world, condescendingly tells him that he appreciates him wearing his "Sunday best." He then lets Ken know that "this isn't some old-world salon with tea cakes and lemonade. We work here."

And work they do, nine to five, "banker's hours," as Rothko calls them. The play is a dialogue between Rothko and Ken, and it's occasionally like a pair of boxers exchanging punches. Rothko holds forth on art and artists (the pop artists are examples of a "smirking nation living under the tyranny of 'fine'"), rips into the "vast panoply of viewers who loathe me" and who think their kids could do what he does, mocks his patrons for "buying taste (and) buying class" and displays the massive self-absorption that's apparently required to create lasting works of art. Here, the works in question are a series of large, mural-like paintings of black and red set to adorn the Four Seasons restaurant, a series now known as the Seagram Murals, although that name isn't used in the play.

Ken is tentative and obsequious at first – conditions that Rothko makes clear Ken's employment requires – but gradually gains his footing and begins to challenge the artist who says he isn't his teacher, shrink or father, but who eventually comes to play all of those roles.

As Rothko, Mann, who sports a shaved-bald head and thick glasses, never once smiles. He displays plenty of emotion, though, filling his voice with just a trace of a New York accent as well as plenty of cutting derision and, occasionally, even sympathy. Mann points at his fellow actor a lot, perhaps too much, and talking with his hands feels like a crutch to give his words more import. It's unnecessary, though, because Mann gives a sufficiently forceful performance, capturing Rothko's bombastic pomposity and later on, his breathtaking selfishness and hypocrisy. "All artists should starve," he tells Ken. "Except for me."

As Ken, Basquill fills the stage with substance and presence even as he struggles to wring emotion from a revelatory story his character tells halfway through the play. And if he never quite shows how an intimidated gofer might turn into a blustering accuser – it's a bit of a head-snapping transformation – Basquill is believable as a smart, conflicted young upstart who both believes in and is unsure of himself.

Several scenes are underscored by moody, minor-key classical music that fits the play's dark, dramatic tone perfectly, but the seats at the Red Barn are set up in such a way that the action in some scenes is lost to anyone who's not sitting in the front row.

"Red" is set right on the cusp of when the so-called "pop artists" like Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol began to overtake the abstract expressionists like Rothko and Pollack in terms of cultural importance. The play posits that every generation of artists both needs and resents the one before it, and therefore must obliterate it. The coup of this production is that Mann and Basquill, under Robison's direction, capture that dynamic in the relationship between Rothko and Ken, which is far from a friendship but eventually edges toward mutual respect.

Ironically, the need – and the ability – to crush the former generation exists mainly in the artists' heads. We don't think less of Picasso because folks like Pollack and Rothko came along, or of Warhol because Jeff Koons is making giant, inflatable, metal-plated balloon animals.

In that sense, all painting is personal and even self-aggrandizing to some degree, and that’s what “Red” is all about.

John Staton: 910-343-2343

On Twitter: @Statonator

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