Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Theater review: DTC’s Red ignites passions with innovative staging
This show leaves a mark.
DOWNTOWN DALLAS “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent.” ~ Mark Rothko
Art, it has been said, comes in many forms. And to understand it, one must become a student of philosophy, theology, history, literature, and anything else you can imagine. Red, currently running at the Dallas Theater Center, is no exception to this rule. What I experienced last night on the 9th floor of the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre was no frivolous distraction; what I experienced was art. I was transported into the sanctuary of Mark Rothko’s studio the moment I set foot in the venue — and I was not alone. There was none of the typical pre-show chatter among the audience. There was a sense that we had entered into a sacred place, a place that dictated hushed tones and respect.
American writer John Logan created Red in 2009 based on the art and philosophy of the 20th century Russian born artist Mark Rothko. The two-man show takes place solely in Rothko’s New York studio space in the late 1950s as he was working on a commission to provide art for a new and exclusive New York restaurant. After the London opening in 2009, Red went on to Broadway where it earned six Tony awards, including Best Play.
Traditionally, Red has been presented in a traditional proscenium style setting where the audience is detached, viewing the action on the stage. Director Joel Ferrell had a different vision. In what could be considered a logistical gamble, Ferrell staged the entire production in the rehearsal hall of the Wyly Theater — a space never before used for a performance. Designer Bob Lavallee recreated Rothko’s studio in this intimate space. The attention to detail was simply exquisite. From the canvas stretching table to Rothko’s rolling paint cart, we weren’t looking at mere set pieces, we were seeing fully functional tools that would be at home in any artist’s studio.
This attention to detail was necessary as the audience was quite literally in the studio with the actors. Rothko’s art has always been described as an immersive experience. With that in mind, Ferrell and Lavallee created a venue that immersed the audience in the performance. As silent players, we were integrated into the set, immersed in the experience, a component of the art. As we silently walked into the studio space we saw Mark Rothko, played by Kieran Connolly, seated in front of a canvas, deep in thought. In a very real sense, the show began for each individual audience member the moment they entered Rothko’s sanctuary. Early in the first scene, Connolly instructed his new assistant, Ken, played by Jordan Brodess, to look at the canvas closely, and to “let the picture do its work.” The same philosophy undergirded Ferrell’s innovative venue. This artistic staging decision was a gamble that paid off. More than mere theater in the round, this intimate proximity enhanced and intensified the roller coaster of genius and emotion we were all to enjoy.
At first, I was concerned about the lighting in this challenging space. My fears were unwarranted. Aaron Johansen knew exactly what he was doing with the house and floor lighting. Utilizing standard household lamps, two rolling studio lights and simple floods, Johansen was able to recreate the low light Rothko demanded for appropriate enjoyment of his work. This simple lighting, often controlled by the actors themselves, proved to be effective in scene transition and mood establishment. Johansen embraced a minimalistic approach with great results.
In the course of the play we spend two years watching the tumultuous employer/employee relationship between Rothko and Ken. Despite Rothko’s repeated protestations that Ken is merely an employee, he is constantly challenging, questioning, and inadvertently mentoring the young Ken. Kieran Connolly was inspirational. He embodied the tragic genius of an artist who sees more in his art than mere color, profit, or pleasure. Connolly’s accomplishment as Rothko was all the more impressive when you consider the material in Logan’s play. Red is a script dense with philosophy, art history, and detailed argumentation. Both Connolly and Brodess had hefty monologues to deliver with passion and depth—and both men were up to the task. Connolly’s Rothko made me want to study (and suffer) under his tutelage. He took these challenging monologues and expressed them as though they were coming to him in the moment. There was not a single moment in this production where I was aware that Connolly and Brodess were dealing with a script. Their delivery was natural, impassioned, and embodied within their characters.
Brodess provided a beautiful example of complex character development during a short span of time. The first time Brodess entered the studio as the nervous Ken on his first day working under Rothko, he was tentative and unsure. Over the next several scenes we saw Brodess develop and mature his role from that nervous art student to a capable young man with informed opinions, passions, and the impressive ability to stand up to Rothko himself. The transformation from uncomfortable uncertainty in scene one to confident conflict in scene four was beautifully executed. Brodess demonstrated a far more sophisticated ability to develop his role than one would assume possible for an actor of his age.
One of the visual highlights of this production was when you see Rothko and Ken attack a larger than life canvas with paint with an intensity that is hard to describe. With classical music blasting from the phonograph and over the house speakers courtesy of a skillful transition from Nate Flanagan, Connolly and Brodess dance before the canvas, slinging paint in a way that brought the act of creation to the stage in a way I have never before seen.
Without qualification, I can affirm that Connolly’s Rothko was the most compelling character I have seen in many years. This show left a mark. Yes, the genius of Mark Rothko, the script by John Logan, and the innovative staging all had a part to play. But it was Connolly’s delivery that made the mark. Few men possess the maturity, insight, and depth to pull off such a challenging role. Connolly proved to be one of those men.
Red, as staged by Dallas Theater Center, proved to be a multi-sensory experience. From the sound of the phonograph to the smell of the paint; from the paintings themselves to the emotional tension created by the actors, the audience was truly immersed in this experience. This is not a production you attend merely to be entertained. This is a production that will challenge your thinking, spark conversation, and have you looking at art in a whole new way. I finish this review with the closing lines from the production:
“What do you see?”
That says it all. See Red. Be challenged. Grow.
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