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By R. Eli Townsend
Special to The PREVIEW
It’s a fine demonstration to the skills of director Melissa Firlit that she achieves the seemingly impossible in “Red,” opening at Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts Friday, May 16 — she makes spellbinding theater out of watching paint dry.
During one riotous scene in the middle of the play, Mark Rothko (Dennis Elkins) and his assistant, Ken (Craig Dolezel), cover a canvas with paint as if possessed, working in silent, furious tandem. Then they stop. On the square behind them, now a deep, shining shade of red, their visible brush strokes fade as the paint begins to set, and for some crazy reason, it’s absorbing to watch.
John Logan’s Tony-winning 2010 play is a fascinating look at the dogmatic, unyielding vision of Rothko, whose paintings adorn the walls of college dorm rooms and major art galleries alike. As the play opens, Rothko undertakes a new commission to provide murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building in New York. To console himself for the indignity of providing art as decor, he insists these new paintings be profound, dark, unwelcoming — and that they ruin the appetite of anyone who eats next to them.
Nevertheless, the commission is the biggest in art history, and so Rothko hires an assistant, Ken, who’s as green and eager as Rothko is petulant and demanding. Ken is a painter, too, which Rothko lets him know has nothing whatsoever to do with his role in the studio. Instead, he mixes paints, cleans, helps prep canvases and listens to Rothko espouse his vision of art, which ranges from how artists should work regular hours like anyone else to how they should also all starve for their art.
For such a short and focused play, “Red” manages to cover an unexpected number of bases. Rothko’s relationship with Ken, a fictional character invented by Logan to explore the artist’s character, is initially one-sided, but as the play shifts towards its inevitable, almost Oedipal conclusion, Ken’s character takes on a new grittiness, reflecting his mentor. At the play’s start, Dolezel is all two-dimensional 1950s earnestness, but as Ken’s tragic past unfolds, the character takes on a new steeliness, with Dolezel resisting the temptation to make Ken just a roadblock for Rothko’s self-absorption.
Logan’s device of using the two characters to unpeel each other, layer by layer, works brilliantly. The audience, rooting for some kind of kinship between the two, adopts Ken’s yearning for some kind of wisdom or approval, which makes Rothko’s snarling outbursts all the more visceral. In a pleasingly visual way, the paintings onstage seem to illustrate the complex relationship between the two in the endless struggle between red and black.
John Santangelo’s set is a fully functioning studio, complete with paints, canvases and industrial lamps, that takes the audience directly into the action of the play. Lighting designer Erika Kae spotlights Rothko’s paintings so they literally glow from within, communicating the awe-inspiring experience a viewer gets when surrounded by them.
“What do you see?” Rothko asks Ken when the pair first meet, to which the obvious answer is, “Red.”
But, as Logan’s stellar play shows, there’s so much more to it than that.
Thingamajig Theatre Company presents “Red” by John Logan, directed by Melissa Firlit, featuring Dennis Elkins and Craig Dolezel, playing May 16-June 1 at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts. For tickets and information, visit www.pagosacenter.org or call 731-SHOW (7469).