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Chicago by John Olson

Red
Goodman Theatre

Broadway plays don't tour much ... not even Tony Award winners ... but at least Chicago is getting the chance to see a Broadway-quality production of 2010's Best Play winner, John Logan's Red (as will Washington, D.C., as this co-production with Arena Stage arrives there in January). While this production of the two-character play may not have the cachet of an international star like Alfred Molina in the lead role, it has the Washington DC based actor Edward Gero, who has all the bombastic presence necessary to make his portrayal of the 20th century American painter Mark Rothko fascinating and watchable throughout its 100 intermissionless minutes. For the role of Rothko's fictional assistant Ken, director Robert Falls has cast the rising young Chicago actor Patrick Andrews, who comes straight to Red from a stint as the central character in the well-received world premiere of The Homosexuals by About Face Theater.

Red
Patrick Andrews and Edward Gero

Red concerns a period in Rothko's career around 1958, when he had accepted a commission to create a mural for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York's Seagram Building. Rothko feared his work would be no more than interior decoration, but was happy to accept the $35,000 commission—an unprecedented fee for such work at the time. He's deep into the project when he hires Ken as his new assistant, and the diminutive, deferential Ken is initially no more than a mostly mute audience for Rothko's pronouncements about his work and painting in general. The conflict of commerce vs. art—and whether the two can co-exist—gives way to a larger theme: the passing of eras in the art world. Patrick, who gradually (and quite convincingly in Andrews' performance) gains enough confidence to ultimately challenge Rothko to acknowledge that Rothko's greater concern is not remorse over selling out, but fear of becoming irrelevant in the wake of younger painters like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Ken does not find Rothko's work irrelevant—he has much respect for it—yet he has a realistic, almost detached view of the inevitable passing of the mantle from one generation to the next.

Logan, Falls and the actors make this all work through incredibly nuanced characterizations. Gero's Rothko initially has an almost autistic lack of concern for the impact of his words on those who hear them. He dispenses opinions as fact incessantly, needing Ken only as an audience—desiring no feedback and expecting no more than he would get if he were delivering his diatribes to a radio audience. Rothko is loud and frequently explosive, but ultimately vulnerable and honest. Gero manages this transition subtly with a stage presence equal to that of many a major stage star. Andrews, who has developed something of a specialty for playing weak or disadvantaged young men, is able to both reinforce the images of his recent roles (he also played the addled Bobby in Steppenwolf's American Buffalo) and go beyond them. He quite masterfully shows Ken's progression from Rothko's insecure and submissive employee into an angry young man with enough confidence to challenge the master in ways that cut the painter to the bone. Andrews also makes clear that Ken has respect for the artist—or at least for his work—and that his challenge of Rothko is intended to help him to more realistically see his place in the art world. While there is a part of Ken's behavior that is motivated by Rothko's callous treatment of him, Ken's actions toward Rothko seem to have no malicious motive.

Red's action is all placed on the hyper-realistic set by Todd Rosenthal, depicting Rothko's cavernous, windowless studio in lower Manhattan, with a feeling as empty and cold as Rothko's emotional state. The passage of time is established with the help of numerous costume changes in the wardrobe designed by Birgit Rattenborg Wise, and the lighting designs by Keith Parham. The total package packs a lot of theater art into a short, intense and fascinating 100 minutes.

Red will play through October 30, 2011 in the Goodman's Albert Theater, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. For ticket information visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org, call 312.443.3800 or visit the box office.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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