Steve Emily shines as Mark Rothko.
As the lights come up on the stage, actor Steve Emily sits in a rickety wooden chair, staring out over the audience, eyes narrowed in concentration. The first line he speaks is to actor Joe O’Rear, who stands nervously in the doorway: “What do you see?”
This feels an appropriate way to open a play presented by Counterweight Theatre Lab
, which never shies away from making its audience think. The works they present consistently delve into deep human truths
or traumas, often asking questions that stick with the viewer long after the proverbial curtain falls. Red
, a play about famed Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (you know, the one with the fuzzy colored rectangles), absolutely does the same. It beautifully weaves together philosophy, humor, history and tragedy, but you can’t credit the script alone for its success.
With only two characters bearing the weight of long monologues and conversations on creativity and artistic zeitgeists, Red
isn’t the kind of play you might sit down and read for funsies. But Emily as Rothko and O’Rear as his assistant, Ken, put so much emotion and physicality into their lines, the play never once comes across as weighty or self-important — except when it wants to. Rothko was, after all, a weighty and self-important man, which Ken helpfully points out.
At its best — and for the record it is very good — Red
makes the audience part of the scene, almost a third character. We become the murals Rothko is painting to decorate a new Four Seasons restaurant — a commission that brings him two years of grief. He stares critically at us, discusses our vulnerability and our meaning. We feel all at once valued and lacking in his eyes. But we aren’t only the paintings. At times, we’re also Ken, who watches this self-destructive painter — a man he admires — lock himself in this dark studio and dismiss the rest of the world.
Ken and Rothko’s interactions could be any interactions between a young creative and the mouthpiece of the generation that came before him. We see Rothko’s irrelevance creeping into the studio, even as he tries to shut it out, and we feel Ken’s frustration.
That is, perhaps, why the second act proves so damn satisfying. Ken isn’t always just Rothko’s dutiful assistant. He has his breaking points; at times he delivers lines so piercing I half expect the bass to drop and Lil John’s “Turn Down For What” to come out of the record player in the corner.
But, through all of the philosophy and tension, it’s funny
, too. The moments of humor — expertly delivered by these two talented actors — make this play work.
functions best in an intimate setting like The Cellar at the Carter Payne, where the audience can see every tic of expression on Rothko’s face as he contemplates his paintings, or where they can notice the subtle shift’s in Ken’s body language as Rothko lectures him about intellectualism and creativity. In this space, we hear every whisper, and suffer the tension when the characters shout. Sitting in one of those chairs, we really are paintings on the wall, hanging in the studio of a man whose creative energy was always too big to be contained in any box.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this review mistakenly referred to Rothko as an Abstract Impressionist. We regret the error.