The didactic, thought-provoking perspectives of indomitable Russian-American abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) are the lifeblood of John Logan’s compelling drama “Red,” the recipient of the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play methodically directed by Richard E. Hess in its splendid local premiere courtesy of the Human Race Theatre Company.
A luminous force among his highly-regarded contemporaries including Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, Rothko (born Marcus Rothkowitz) adamantly believed in the intrinsic magnetism of art beneath the surface. Colors have subtext. Contemplation matters. Discernment is paramount. The passionate, immensely self-absorbed titan purposefully demanded more from the beholder. In his view, art is alive, always moving, and must be perceived as a deeply meditative tool of discovery. Astutely, Logan displays Rothko in his heyday, the late 1950s, as he creates a series of murals for Manhattan’s swanky Four Seasons restaurant over a period of two years. Newly assisted by the inquisitive Ken, Rothko vows to make the restaurant a temple for his murals, but his commercial decision to compromise his artistic integrity for $35,000 is inescapable. As questions emerge and answers entice, Rothko and Ken’s eye-opening exchanges, encompassing Matisse, Michelangelo, Picasso and Warhol, reveal a striking father-son rapport that remarkably stings and surprises without one ounce of sappiness.
Human Race resident artist Michael Kenwood Lippert, in a superbly detailed, language-driven performance, paints an incredibly intimidating, unapologetic portrait of Rothko, who abhorred the idea of merely making “pretty pictures.” With imposing velocity and intellectual clout, Lippert effortlessly taps into the explosive assertiveness and egotism that fueled the artist’s inner fire. He particularly shines when furiously proclaiming Rothko’s distaste of the U.S. “living under the tyranny of fine” in addition to addressing his desire for artists to be knowledgeable of history, philosophy and mythology among other disciplines. Yet most impressively, he clearly grasps the sheer unstableness pulsating within Rothko’s angered, edgy disposition. While isolated from the world and its natural light inside his bleakly spacious studio (expertly lit by John Rensel and efficiently designed by Mark Halpin with properties by Heather Powell), Rothko appears to be in control yet cannot expunge his personal demons or the uncertain future of his craft as pop art develops, insights Lippert expresses with emotional truth.
Will Allan, an Oakwood High School graduate who continues to leave an imprint within the Chicago theater scene, equally electrifies as the eager Ken, a young, mysterious artist from Iowa. Foremost, he surpasses British actor Eddie Redmayne, who won a Tony for his portrayal even though he failed to capture Ken’s Midwestern sensibility and cadence. Still, Allan’s calculated proficiency extends beyond the fundamentals. From the opening minutes in which he stands transfixed in wide-eyed astonishment to his fiery tirade of hurt and exasperation toward the conclusion, he skillfully conveys an evolution grounded in awkward naiveté that blossoms with decisive confidence, especially as Ken, desiring to be valued in spite of a generational divide, grows increasingly comfortable challenging his employer. He also brings heartbreaking poignancy to an underdeveloped plot point concerning Ken’s tragic past, which is intended to make Rothko seem less heartless but feels incomplete and slightly contrived.
Blessed by Lippert and Allan’s fantastic teamwork, spiritedly and wordlessly intensified when priming a canvas in a truly unforgettable scene, “Red” presents Rothko’s iconic legacy and the vicissitudes of art with galvanizing impact.
“Red” continues through Feb. 5 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. The play is performed in 100 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $18.50-$40. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com. Also, two Rothko works will be exhibited at the Dayton Art Institute through Feb. 12. For more information, call the DAI at (937) 223-5277 or visit www.daytonartinstitute.org
In related news, the Human Race’s 2012-13 season will consist of the regional premiere of Janece Shaffer’s comedy “Managing Maxine” (Sept. 6-23), a reconceived staging of Lionel Bart’s classic musical “Oliver!” (Nov. 29-Dec. 16), the local premiere of Eric Simonson’s 2010 football drama “Lombardi” (Feb. 7-24), the local premiere of David Mamet’s 2009 provocative drama “Race” (Apr. 4-21), Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty’s naughty, puppet-driven 2004 Tony-winning Best Musical “Avenue Q” (June 6-23), and a season extra, local premiere of Michael Slade’s psychological thriller “Under a Red Moon” (Oct. 18-28). For additional information, visit www.humanracetheatre.org