International City Theatre (ICT) is presenting us with the opportunity to eavesdrop on a powerful artist at work with John Logan’s Red, winner of six Tony Awards, including Best Play. At the helm as producer/director of this wonderful production for ICT is award-winning director Caryn Desai.
We’ve all heard that successful painters’ creations are their babies, the results of outwardly expressed feelings and fate-granted talent lovingly caressed onto canvas. Their works are observed, admired and adored by us, the masses, because such talent comes from an often-envied place inside the artist. It is a place hidden behind doors only a randomly chosen few are granted the keys to open. We, as the common multitude, do not often get the opportunity to visit that place, feel its pulse, or hear its cries for attention or its screams to be released. But, what if we could eavesdrop, for a moment, into it?
Red is the fictional account of the events that may have taken place in the converted studio at 222 Bowery in New York City when non-fictional Abstract Impressionist Mark Rothko was commissioned at great expense to create a series of murals for the newly built, luxurious Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in 1958. This series of paintings is still viewed, and wondered upon today in galleries around the world, though neither the Four Seasons nor the Seagram Building was ever granted a viewing. Red tells us why.
In Red, Rothko (played by Tony Abatemarco), now in his 50s, hires an assistant, 20-something Ken (played by Patrick Stafford), an aspiring painter himself, to take on the mundane acts of a painter such as building the canvases, mixing the paints, cleaning brushes, and applying the ground color for Rothko’s magnificent works. Before even one of his duties begins, however, Rothko presents Ken to the audience to observe one of the yet uncompleted commissioned paintings and asks: “What do you see?”
As the audience, we are led to believe, as Ken believes, that his opinion matters. But this is not the case as Rothko makes this point perfectly clear. “Consider: I am not your rabbi, I am not your father, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend, I am not your teacher– I am your employer. You understand?”
As Ken takes on the position as Rothko’s assistant, he gets far more than a job or the opportunity to learn the craft from the heralded painter. Ken gets lessoned in what life becomes for an artist after years of putting paint and blood and soul to canvas while finding one’s way to fame in a world filled with those with no vision or appreciation for what is significant, according to Rothko.
Tony Abatemarco is brilliant as the grandiose, self-described genius of the painting world. He illuminates the character of Rothko as a man on a mission to earnestly and feverishly drive his assistant Ken, as a part of the “next generation” (as well as the rest of the uncaring/unknowing/unseeing world), to understand that one must respect those who came before in art, but one must also murder the older generation without care in order to move art forward.
Rothko is primarily driven by passion for his work and horror in his own realizations that no one is good enough to view his creations with an eye and a heart that can do the paintings the justice they deserve. Abatemarco gives us all that complexity and more with his thought-provoking, and at times compassionate, performance.
One would think that the role of the newly hired assistant would leave no room for complexity, but writer John Logan did not let that fate befall Ken, and neither does Patrick Stafford. Ken is skittish at first, of course. After all, Ken is the frightened newbie-on-the-block to Rothko’s experienced, storming ideals about the painter’s complex world. Then, over the two-year span of the production’s timeline, Ken is painted by Stafford with depth and complexity of his own, indicating that in his time with Rothko, Ken has become an opinion to be reckoned with. Stafford takes on his role with strength and gives us a Ken that is fictional in history, yes, but as real as Rothko himself onstage.
JR Bruce’s scene design for Red is both simple and complex, making it suitable for the studio at 222 Bowery that produced works by Rothko. The converted basketball court to painter’s studio is wonderfully spattered with a painter’s tools and paint as well from Rothko’s pallete. The set is completed with gymnasium-style windows that have been equally spattered to keep out any natural light, just as Rothko prefers. Lighting design credit for Red goes to Donna Ruzika, and costume design was by Kim DeShazo.
ICT’s production of Red proves that when talented people join together to create theatre as it should be performed, it culminates in more than just entertainment; it creates an experience.
Red is being presented by International City Theatre at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd. The 90-minute, one act performances are Thursdays to Sundays through Sept 15. Thursday–Saturday performances are at 8pm, and Sunday matinees at 2pm. For tickets or more information, call (562) 436-4610 or visit internationalcitytheatre.org .