It is 1958, and abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko has just landed a biggest commission in the history of modern art. He is to paint a series of murals for New York's famed Four Seasons restaurant. He hires an assistant named Ken whose job it is mix paints, make frames, stretch and prime canvases, and do anything else requested of him as Rothko spends the next two years completing some forty pictures in his Bowery artist studio. (The real life Rothko took only three months.) As in the play, after visiting the Four Seasons, the real Rothko considered the restaurant's dining atmosphere too pretentious and inappropriate for the display of his works. He immediately refused to continue the project, and returned the commission cash advance to Joseph Seagram and Sons which had commissioned the murals.
The Russian born Rothko is difficult, dark, brilliant, opinionated and unapologetically self-absorbed. He barks orders at Ken at the same time as he spews philosophies of art. He forever exams the why, where, what and how of the very existence of art. He discusses his own influences, such as Nietzsche, mythology, surrealism and light, sometimes spending days just looking at what he is working on before making the next brush stroke. Despite his own fierce protection of his art he has odd disregard for others who would view, praise it or buy it. He even says his true intention for the murals is to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won't. People can stand anything these days."
The day to day work relationship between Rothko (Gregg Weiner) and Ken (Ryan Didato) is fraught with ever-changing tension. They share a passion for art and a desire to succeed, but even their definition of art and success differs. Weiner's Rothko simmers with contempt for mediocrity and complacency, nearly unaware of Ken. At times Weiner even manages to convey that part of Rothko that is possessed of a certain degree of self-loathing. There is no tender-hearted man beneath the gruff exterior, only more layers of gristle. Weiner does a fine job giving us just that without the character seeming two dimensional. In all fairness, however, Weiner does not seem comfortable with the languagethe style of speech used by the character. The words don't seem to come naturally to him when Rothko is speaking intellectually and passionately about art. They are well rehearsed, but do not feel organic, particularly in the first scene.
We believe Didato as Ken as he aches to be accepted, mentored and affirmed. He manages to not be needy, however, as this is something Rothko would have despised. Near the end of the play when Ken finally vents his feelings to Rothko we see Didato emerge as an actorconvincingly at risk and in the moment. He successfully holds back until that moment arrives, making it more meaningful.
GableStage does a wonderful job with the canvases and use of light. One is struck by how well they reflect Rothko's opinion about controlled lighting to protect the look of his work in a scene where a painting done in reds is transformed by just changing the lights. Directing by Joseph Adler is thoughtful, and the pacing of the show is strong, for this extraordinarily well written play by John Logan.
Playwright John Logan is best known for his screenwriting. He wrote Any Given Sunday and the television movie RKO 281 before receiving an Academy Award nomination for co-writing the film Gladiator in 2000. He received another nomination in 2004 for The Aviator starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Other films written by Logan include Star Trek: Nemesis, The Time Machine, The Last Samurai, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, for which he received a Golden Globe award. Logan was a successful playwright in Chicago before turning to screenwriting. In addition to Red, his other plays include Never the Sinner, which tells the story of the infamous Leopold and Loeb case; Hauptmann, about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping; and Riverview, a musical melodrama set at Chicago's famed amusement park.
Red will be appearing at The GableStage through December 4, 2011. The GableStage is located in the eastern section of the Biltmore Hotel, at 1200 Anastasia Avenue, in Coral Gables, Florida. Valet parking is available, or free parking is available in the Biltmore parking area west of the hotel. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information you may reach them at 305-445-1119 or online at www.GablesStage.org.
The GableStage, formerly known as the Florida Shakespeare Theatre, is a professional theatre presenting classic and contemporary theatre year round. They are members of the Theatre League of South Florida, the Florida Cultural Alliance, the Theatre Communications Group, SouthFloridaTheatre.com and the Dade Cultural Alliance. The GableStage hires local and non-local Equity and non-union actors and actresses, and is involved with the educational community in promoting educational theatre programs.
Indicates a member of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.
Photo: George Schiavone