The lights came up last week on a stark but telling, extraordinary set by Scenic Designer Richard Crowell for John Logan's 2010 Tony Award Winning play"Red" currently enthralling audiences at the Florida Rep. It is 1958 and abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko has just received the most important and lucrative commission in the history of modern art from the Seagram Corporation to paint murals for the newly constructed, soon to be famous, New York's landmark restaurant, The Four Seasons
"What do you see?" is the first line Mark Rothko (William McNulty) asks, first the audience then his prospective assistant Ken (David McElwee); and we're off on what is essentially and 90-minute master class in an artist's responsibility; as Rothko struts and strides across his studio he takes the theatergoers inside the artist's mind giving us much to ponder. In some ways this play is an Art History lesson disguised as a play. The opening scenes of the play serve as a platform for Rothko's wit and philosophy, as he lectures his new assistant Ken. Many complex concepts are explored, such as the death of cubism by Rothko and his contemporaries, the Renaissance revolution of perspective, all this delivered by an artist with a staggering sense of self awareness. This painter intends to create a temple within The Four Seasons Restaurant for his art; by "capturing the ephemeral on canvas". Rothko believed that in order for the viewer to really feel anything, paintings had to have pulse, throb, and clash and above all move. Since Rothko saw his artworks as vulnerable children capable of both evoking and suffering tragedy and bleeding blood, hence the canvas murals must be "Red". Once the lecture is done including Goya's quote "We have art so that we might not perish from truth"; the play starts to become an engrossing drama and get really interesting.
Ken, the assistant, has listened carefully as he aches to be accepted, mentored and be affirmed, until this awed acolyte finds the wherewithal to point out Rothko's hypocrisies and failings. He has spent the past two years obeying every whim and fulfilling every want of Rothko, until he becomes confident enough to challenge the master, it is here the play becomes more than just a conflict of ideas about what art should be, and who it should be for, now it becomes a thrilling conflict between two men; and it is here that the two fine actors, William McNulty and David McElwee are at their best, in the fiery, passionate outbursts.
William McNulty 's Rothko towers in his forceful performance, yet skillfully making clear playwright Logan's deeply held complex concepts on art instantly comprehensible to the audience. This fine actor invests Rothko with all manner of shadings as the painter boils with contempt for mediocrity and complacency; "The zeitgeist art of Warhol, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg and Stella is all about business not art, they want warm, pretty, beautiful, nice, happy. We have become a smirking nation of living under the influence of "fine". I don't want nice, not fine. I want real, I'm here to stop your heart not paint pretty pictures. This is not a portrait of a tender hearted man this is a man of grit and gristle, there is self loathing embedded in this character and yet in the hands of this very fine actor making an auspicious Florida Rep debut this actor does a brilliant job by never making this character seem two dimensional. The playwright's dialogue just flows organically from McNulty's Rothko whether speaking intellectually, emotionally or passionately about art, and that in itself is what the art of acting is all about
Another superb actor making his Florida Rep. debut is David McElwee as Ken the young assistant (who washes the brushes, stretches the canvases, makes the coffee and sweeps the floor). McElwee's Ken travels effortlessly from the over eager fawning go-for, to the strong character who convincingly takes a risk, waiting for the moment to speak his truths and stand up to the stern, demanding master.
The Direction by Robert Caccioppo is strong, firm, thoughtful, clearly paced and just right for this extraordinarily well crafted play by John Logan. All in all this production of Florida Rep.'s "Red" captures the audience, for a 90 minute wild ride of ideas delivered by two skilled actors, and you really can't ask for more than that. Since "Red" is only playing till March 25th I would strongly suggest that you phone the Box Office now!
(239) 332-4488, and make your reservation to see this interesting and exciting play performed by two remarkable actors. When you phone remind 'em Marsha sent you.