Written by John Logan; directed by David R. Gammons; scenic design, Cristina Todesco; costume design, Gail Astrid Buckley; lighting design, Jeff Adelberg; sound design, Bill Barclay
Cast: Thomas Derrah as Mark Rothko, Karl Baker Olson as Ken
Performances: Now through February 4, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Virginia Wimberly Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts; tickets available at 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com
A mesmerizing performance by Thomas Derrah as the brilliant but troubled abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko gives this 2010 Tony Award-winning play by John Logan its sizzle at SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston. Derrah wraps ego around self-doubt and peppers his performance with so much biting arrogance that we never for one minute doubt that this man is the talented and tormented artist who strove first and foremost to make people feel in a deeply visceral way.
In RED, Rothko and his graduate student assistant Ken (Karl Baker Olson) work together over a two-year period beginning in 1958 on a series of large red and black murals commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant located in New York's famed Seagram's Building. While Rothko tries to educate his young protégé about the truth he is trying to express in his art, he struggles with his own contempt for the blatantly commercial pieces he has agreed to deliver.
Derrah is a bi-polar freight train whose Rothko ardently, if pompously, lectures to Ken one minute then in his next breath spits out his caustic vitriol toward the very people who buy his paintings – either as decorations, as show pieces, or because they'll be worth something someday. Never satisfied that his genius is truly appreciated, he vacillates unpredictably between bombast and depression.
The play verges on greatness with its piercing wit and penetrating look into the artist's volatile relationship to his art. But it becomes sidetracked a bit when it tries to paint Rothko as a surrogate father figure to Ken. A highly dramatic monologue that Ken delivers about a tragedy in his early childhood promises to move RED into an even deeper exploration of what drives artists to create the works that they do – and to give two lost souls a connection that could open new avenues of expression. Unfortunately, that story arc is never fully pursued, leaving Ken emotionally unscathed by his trauma and rendering him little more than an affable and eager foil for Rothko's sermonizing. There is a nice shift in perspective at the end, however, that suggests the master may have learned something vital from the student.
RED benefits tremendously from taking up residence in the larger Virginia Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts instead of SpeakEasy's usual black box, the Roberts Studio Theatre. Designers Cristina Todesco (set), Jeff Adelberg (lights) and Bill Barclay (sound) take full advantage of their expanded space, turning the proscenium stage into a towering industrial loft of bricks, pipes, frosted 10-foot windows, a freight elevator, and functional ropes and pulleys with which Rothko's massive paintings are raised and lowered. Between scenes a translucent scrim with six panes drops in, serving as a window of sorts that allows the audience a glimpse into Rothko's cloistered world. It disappears when each new scene begins, suggesting that the outside world holds no interest for Rothko when he is at work. Sounds of heavy equipment on the street below add to the urgency of what is unfolding above.
RED may be a two-person play, but the SpeakEasy production smartly brings to life the art as well as the artist. It's not only a master class on Mark Rothko's enigmatic paintings. It's also a master class in superlative acting by the estimable Thomas Derrah.
PHOTOS: Thomas Derrah as Mark Rothko; Thomas Derrah and Karl Baker Olson as Ken; Thomas Derrah