ALBANY — What is it to be an artist?
That’s the question at the heart of “Red” (also at the heart of “The Belle of Amherst” and “Amadeus,” which invite us mere mortals into the strange world of creative geniuses). This two-character play by John Logan explores the life of American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), and it is a beaut. In fact, the script’s so good — and the production at Cap Rep so engrossing — that you might want to see this one again.
There’s a lot going on in these 95 uninterrupted minutes exploring a short period (1959-61) in Rothko’s life. Rothko (Kevin McGuire) has been hired for $35,000 to create a series of murals for the new Four Seasons Restaurant. He hires an assistant (a fictional character, by the way), Ken (David Kenner), to help him in his studio from 9-5, M-F. In five scenes, Logan takes us on a hellacious trip through the mind of a midcentury artistic original, a loquacious, booze-swilling, chain-smoking egomaniac who may just be entitled to the lofty view he has of himself.
After all, he’s thoroughly educated in philosophy, art, music, literature — the meat of his soliloquies. He’s opinionated, but he can back up his opinions. He knows what’s wrong with American culture, and we agree. He’s a fierce worker, with a lot of product to show. But he slashes his wrists nine years later.
WHERE: Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN: through May 19
HOW MUCH: $65-$20
MORE INFO: 445-7469, www.capitalrep.org
While we can see through much of the bravado, young Ken — for all his troubled past — can’t, and begins the job an eager puppy, admiring the Great Man, hoping to learn something about art so he, too, can become a painter. As time goes on, however, the balance of power begins to shift, and in a supercharged fourth scene, rage and sadness flood the stage, spilling unchecked from the hearts of both men.
Great writing: two flesh-and-blood characters brawling about ideas, culture and personal suffering. And the fifth scene starts with just enough humor (to Mozart’s “Requiem”!) to allow the play a completely earned ending.
The production values are first-rate: Roman Tatarowicz’s detailed set of an artist’s studio (a huge red-and-black block painting pulsing upstage), Stephen Quandt’s subtle lighting changes, Thom Heyer’s period costumes and Steve Stevens’ sound design (featuring, among others, Bach and Mendelssohn).
I scratched out just a few notes in the dark, too absorbed by the goings-on. Credit, then, to director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill for pacing this piece so precisely and to these two performers for the execution.
If Kenner somewhat patly telegraphs Ken’s youthful enthusiasm with his trotting in and out of the studio at the beginning, he shades the rest of the performance with such care that we believe Ken has grown over two years. Physically and vocally Ken holds his own in that crucial fourth scene, thanks to Kenner’s subtle work before it.
McGuire’s Rothko is a fearsome force of nature, spooling out monologues even in the midst of ostensible conversations, and in McGuire’s readings, these speeches have heft. But if Rothko were merely a bully, we could write him off; instead, he’s also a wreck of man, which McGuire brilliantly conveys with a stricken look or a querulous tone of voice.
There’s a Rothko painting on the Empire State Plaza concourse. Take a look. And definitely see this play.