Review by Greg Haymes
“What do you see?”
It’s not only the opening line of John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play, “Red,” currently onstage at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany. It’s also the play’s battle cry.
And just as there’s a huge difference between hearing music and listening to it, there’s also a monumental difference between looking at a painting and actually seeing it.
Logan distills the philosophy of the creative act into a broiling, one-act play that examines the iconic abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko as he ponders the gulf between art and commerce, his purpose in life and ultimately his own mortality. “Red” is a witty, whip-smart intellectual wrestling match about what art – and life – should mean, not just to an artist, but to us all.
Rothko – impeccably played with the wiles and roar of an old lion by veteran Kevin McGuire (last seen at Cap Rep in 2011 as the lead in “Man of La Mancha)” – faces his ultimate artistic challenge, having been commissioned to create a series of paintings to adorn the walls of the tony Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. He’s hired on an assistant – played with the perfect balance of youthful energy and subtle reserve by David Kenner – to aid him in his studio. “I am not your teacher,” Rothko bellows, but during the three years covered in the play (1959-1961), the artist indeed instills confidence and the hunger for knowledge in his aide.
It’s a talky play, no question about it. And just as Rothko’s creative process involved as much contemplation as actual physical painting – “Most of painting is thinking,” he says at one point – “Red” is consumed with the discussion of art, rather than its actual creation. In fact, during the 90-minute play, there is just one two-or-three-minute burst where paint brushes touch canvas – but it’s a gloriously frantic, splatteringly messy ballet of brushstrokes.
And like the best of Rothko’s canvases, there’s an intense spiritual glow to “Red,” as the play becomes a declaration, a manifesto, a love letter to the creation of art.
Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill manages to bring the intellectual sparring session to life physically, however, and aided by painting consultant Tony Iadicicco – artist and director of the nearby Albany Center Gallery – the crucial onstage paintings breathe with the same pulsing power that the actors bring to the stage. (More than a dozen more Iadicicco paintings are on exhibit in the theater lobby during the run of the show, including one titled “Red,” which is being auctioned off to benefit the American Heart Association.)
But the truth of the matter is that you don’t have to be an art major or even a regular gallery-goer to appreciate the powerful work being done in the spotlight at Cap Rep.
And just as there are so many various shades of red, there are also many varied themes of “Red.” It’s about the fragile relationship between the artist and his art. It’s about the gulf between art and “interior design.” It’s about the battle between light and dark, between young and old, between red and black. It’s about the tug of war between passion and intellect. It’s about the curse that fame places on art. It’s about trying to hold onto hope and faith in the face of doubt and despair. It’s brave. It’s funny. It rips out your heart. It makes you think. It makes you feel…
PS: Would love to know what’s happening with the sprawling canvases that are painted on stage during the show… Is someone taking photographs of the canvas that’s painted each evening? Will there be an exhibit somewhere? Please?