The Bridge Nouveau Theatre Production of Red by John Logan at the Baton Rouge Gallery did not provoke anger in me as the red cape does to the bull but it did bring forth a visceral sadness especially when Rothko spoke of his friend, Jackson Pollock. Rothko played by Gregory Leute ushers in the tragedy gracefully and very well-accompanied by Brady Lewis playing Ken, his assistant. The provocation of Ken by his employer, Rothko, is not mistaken. It is the taunting of the bull by the fighter. Both words and colors fuel the fires from within Ken and Rothko. Finally Ken spews forth his opinion on the old man’s view of the color black, challenging him to a duel about the meanings and feelings of certain colors but ending with the sharp-tongued stab of Rothko’s low blow, “I did not kill your parents”. Leute and Lewis volley very successfully. Each actor continues and follows through each emotion, committing to the anger and tragedy yet recovering to rise out of the darkness to challenge the audience.
Very first scene, Ken’s fly is unzipped. He is just arriving to his first day on the job. Is this an intentional character flaw? It works wonders on me. At once I question my reaction and wait for Rothko’s reaction. I see it! Such a small detail that affects the audience and the other actor. Immediately this detail sets a tone that is gradually rearranged as the color red appears in conversation and on the canvas.
A friendship blossoms, deeper conversations emerge, revealing some core emotions and motives for their color associations. Ken opens up to Rothko about his tragic family life and I believe Ken’s memory about the color red and the white of snow. Rothko talks about “one day the black will swallow the red”. Ken stands up to his hypocrisies and holds his own. The actors pushing and pulling the intensity around the stage, left and right, right and left, using the space well. Facing the audience while looking at the imaginary painting, discussing, learning, teaching even against Rothko’s exhortations about “you are only my employee!”.
The stage in reality is an art gallery but the scene is set in a studio so the track lighting works very well. I don’t think any other space would lend itself to this play as well. Even the sliding doors as backstage are charming. I want to point out the direction by Alicia Hanley as something of a wonder, two men in a studio debating the finer points of artistic life could be a static situation but Hanley creates a flow and activates the stage especially the scene in which they paint the canvas together, my favorite scene. The sound design by Nick Hwang is flawless as I expected, knowing his work from past art installations. The classical music blares during this scene. Dramatic and climatic illustrating the use of the color red; passion, life, love, lips, ruby slippers.
The sadness I feel does not impede my enjoyment of the play. I am enriched by the power of the actors that are so engaged in creating momentum. The foreshadowing of suicide is honest and the entire play is an exploration of Rothko’s wide latitude of feelings concerning his life and paintings which he felt needed to be protected and sheltered from the bitterness of the outside world. He tried to keep a distance from the world but in reality he was incredibly sensitive to everything and everyone. This is a complex character that Gregory Leute handles and expresses through his stage relationship with Brady Lewis. And Lewis is able to hold up a mirror and challenge us as well as Leute.
“To create a temple for my paintings” is ultimately not what the Four Seasons restaurant would become for Rothko’s murals. He battled with this during his conversations with Ken. This production of Red did justice to his process, the artist’s process, of letting go, in the sense of releasing your babies into the cruel world and in the sense of maybe not clinging to what the outside world offers up to the ego.
Meg Guidroz Holford can be contacted here: firstname.lastname@example.org
PS I would like to organize a trip to the Rothko Chapel in the Fall. It is in Houston. We could ride together in a nice big van and stay in the same hotel. Email if you are interested. Cheers.