The very first words uttered in “Red,” the breathtakingly brilliant play about the painter Mark Rothko, are “What do see?”
What you will see, when you attend this production at The Gamm Theatre, is a play that captures the miraculous beauty of and the need for the act of artistic creation. “Red” manages this by employing language and ideas with the same deft boldness that marked Rothko’s brushstrokes and by the portrait of the artist himself by Fred Sullivan Jr. Mr. Sullivan’s portrayal is volcanic, alternately smoldering and explosive, but always infused with a white-hot creative force. This is a must-see show for anyone who cares deeply about art. And if you don’t care about art, “Red” will teach you how.
Surfaces can be deceiving; Rothko would be the first to attest as much. A quick description of the plot does not seem to yield up much in the way of dramatic possibilities. We witness scenes from the artist’s studio over the course of two years in the late ’50s, Rothko bantering with his assistant Ken (the excellent Marc Dante Mancini) as he embarks on painting a series of murals originally commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. But, as we learn, there is tragedy in every brushstroke and what transpires here is an exhilaratingly philosophical dialogue on the nature of and of the importance of art. The acts of creation we witness are as exciting and as significant as the life or death struggle that it is, and nothing could be more dramatic than that.
If the above statement sounds too grandiose and over-encompassing, that’s the exactly the sort of feeling this play inspires and one witnesses “Red” in a state of awe regarding the best of human capability. And that is precisely what the painter Mark Rothko, channeled here by playwright John Logan, intended. “I am here to stop your heart,” he declaims, “I am here to make you think. I am not here to make pretty pictures.” For Rothko what matters is the vital significance of his art, the capacity of the creative process not merely to make something pretty that makes you feel “fine” but to create something with deep, true meaning that adds to the sum total of our species. For him art has the capability of making us human and our civilization is a tool as much as a brush as he imagines his murals as being part of a chapel, “a place of communion.”
That the miraculous transformative capacity of creating great art matters a very great deal to actor Fred Sullivan, Jr., right down to the marrow, is all too apparent in his deeply felt and nuanced portrayal of Mark Rothko. A Trinity Rep Company member, Mr. Sullivan has directed many wonderful productions at The Gamm over the years; this marks his welcome debut as an actor at this theater. Watching Mr. Sullivan’s performance is a both an visceral and intellectual treat; the very messy but exceedingly exact act of artistic creation seem to motivate every move he makes in a performance marked by both ferocity and finesse. The sheer force of Rothko’s ideas radiate from this actor like the pulse of a hidden beacon. We see a man overwhelmed by the absolute emotion of color and driven from the depths of his soul to create something significant, to capture light, color and movement upon his canvas, to “not be found wanting” and ultimately to eradicate “the black” of the soul. The strength of this conviction can be found in his magnificently resonant voice as he hectors and cajoles his assistant on the nature of art.
It’s no easy feat to hold your own against such a sheer force of artistic temperament, but Marc Dante Mancini manages this and then some as Rothko’s assistant, Ken. Mr. Mancini possesses an eager impulsiveness in the role but one marked by a thoughtful and wary restraint. As the conversations between the two grow more contentious over time, the actor pulls no punches in displaying the courage of his artistic convictions. This is a measured and marvelous performance.
The thrilling scope of passionately held artistic ideas stop the play about two guys in an artist’s studio from being too dry and didactic. This process is helped immeasurably by Tony Estrella’s masterful direction. “Movement is everything in life and art,” Rothko reminds us, and to that end Mr. Estrella’s direction keeps his actors in a constant state of focused flux, keeping the dialogue lively while allowing time for thoughtful reflection from the audience.
All of this occurs before the whitewashed brick walls of Michael McGarty’s basement studio set, cluttered and spattered with the accouterment of making art — a perfect palimpsest for the acts of creation we witness here. A Rothko reproduction hangs above the audience’s collective heads and as we watch the artists scrutinize the painting, we’re drawn into their world and are invited to see the ever-transforming work as they see it.
“Let the picture do its work,” Rothko insists upon our attention. “Work with it, meet it half way, be a human being, be specific, what do you see?” Rothko demands of us that we not be too pedestrian and reminds us that art, like people, cannot be so easily categorized. Do not look at the work as a sofa-sized commodity or like it merely because “the art critics of the New York Times tells me I should have one.”
Alas, for the likes of me this makes criticism itself rather reductive, but the man has a valid point. Just as pictures in a portfolio cannot do justice to the vivid beauty of seeing a Rothko mural in person, my own descriptions cannot convey the exquisite and ephemeral wonders of actually seeing “Red.” Caught, briefly, within the framework of The Gamm Theatre is something truly wondrous and we witness the genesis of the miracle of artistic creation. See this play and be transformed.
WHERE: The Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket
WHEN: Through Dec. 16; check website for show times
COST: $36 and $45
MORE INFO: 401/723-4266; www.gammtheatre.org