Humanity's penchant for observing suffering is part of the reason breaking news segments, thriller novels, soap operas and horror movies thrive: these mediums contain stories filled with elements of dread. Life is painted with such events that both equalize and alienate people from one another. But what happens when suffering sparks art, and art sparks debate?
These considerations make it simple to see why John Logan's Red, currently playing at Syracuse Stage, was the 2010 Tony Award-winner for best play. Though Logan's pen has also given life to screenplays like Gladiator, the Oscar-sweeping Hugo and the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall, this play stands apart with an intimate cast, brilliant repartee and depiction of an artist's humanity.
Logan's fictional account of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko begins in 1958. Rothko (Joseph Graves) is immersed in a commission for the newly-designed Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. By this time, Rothko's work is well-known and hangs in galleries. He accepts the commission with an unspoken goal: to create a series for the Four Seasons that won't serve as a background to breakfast conversation, but spark admiration and reflection, maybe even its own conversation.
"A picture lives by companionship," says Rothko. "It dies by the same token."
That year, Rothko hires a young assistant, Ken (Matt Amendt). Through their mutual love for the expression of art, the men work to create large murals in Rothko's signature style of rectangles in fields of saturated color. For Rothko, the strokes symbolize tragedy, from living in Depression-era New York City to the growing loss of appreciation for abstract art. For Ken, the vibrant reds speak of a more haunting pain.
Two years pass in 90 minutes, and as the characters' relationship grows, the paintings grow as red as the flame on Rothko's ever-present cigarette. All the while, a torrent of debate over new and old art emerges, splashed with accounts from each character's life and generation.
The character of Rothko is masterfully portrayed by Joseph Graves, veteran Shakespearean actor and Artistic Director Peking University's Institute of World Theatre and Film in Beijing, China, who injects Rothko's passion and obsession into each syllable and brushstroke. His counterpart Matt Amendt, an alumni of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, has a boyish fervor which left few dry eyes or untouched hearts in the house during his climactic soliloquy. Under the expert direction of Director Penny Metropulos (Picasso at the Lapine Agile and Up), the two create a back-and-forth of talent and interpretation that captivates the audience.
Scenic designer William Bloodgood recreates Rothko's studio in the Bowery, a beautiful reproduction of warehouse-high ceilings and staiNed Glass-pane windows (to his credit, the actors even mix and apply paint onstage during a soaring aria), while Thomas C. Hase defies the challenge of lighting numerous large, red paintings. Costumer Gretchen Darrow-Crotty and sound designer Jeremy J. Lee add to the atmosphere with 1950s sights and sounds.
Red is not a play for art admirers, it's a play for all the thinkers, seekers and change makers: those who are not afraid to face life's biggest fears, or produce life from death.
For more information about Red, click here.
Photos by Michael Davis.