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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 16, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 11
Red - 'Seattle Rep is on a roll'
Arts & Entertainment
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Red - 'Seattle Rep is on a roll'

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

Red
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through March 24


There's no doubt about it: the Seattle Rep is on a roll, extending its last two productions for a full week of extra performances. Two recent Tony Award-winners for Best Play of the Year - the just-shuttered I Am My Own Wife and the current production of John Logan's Red - attracted such box-office business that both productions were extended. I Am My Own Wife, a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize-winner for drama, added the extra performances after it opened in the Rep's intimate Leo K. Theatre. Red generated so much box office excitement that it was extended a week before its opening night on the Rep's larger main stage.

Both plays and both productions deserve the added interest. I Am My Own Wife, the true story of a German Transsexual who lived openly as a woman under Nazi and then Communist rule, was riveting theater. So is the Rep's latest production, Red, a co-production with the Arizona Theatre Company where the staging will move after it ends its Rep run on March 24.

Author John Logan, a respected playwright best known for his screenplays for the current Hugo and an Oscar-winner for earlier scripts for both Gladiator and The Aviator, turned his focus on American artist Mark Rothko, who was at the peak of his career in 1958-'59 when he was commissioned to create a series of individual paintings for the then-new Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in Manhattan. The play pits Rothko's demanding personality against his newly hired (and fictional) assistant, Ken, a conglomerate of many young assistants who worked for the challenging artist. Rothko had been offered $34,000 for the paintings, which were to form a mural in the most exciting new building and new restaurant in New York City. It was then a record-breaking amount for a single commission in the modern art world. And Rothko, of course, decided to create this four-part mural in his trademarked red-on-black or black-on-red abstract style.

The play is the epitome of new drama. Two characters, a single set, a strong central personality, a 'serious' message (about creativity) in a highly theatrical setting - a visual highlight of the 90-minute work is when the artist and his young assistant prime a canvas in rust red for a future painting. The stage is literally awash in a dark red paint - the canvas, the stage, and both of the actors are smeared in red by the end of the powerful scene, which left the audience cheering. And, yes, the hardworking Rep stage crew has to prepare a new series of canvases and clean the studio set for each performance (which must be a real test of time on matinee days).

Logan adds a tantalizing taste of Nietzsche and other philosophers, a quick contrast in Apollonian and Dionysian concepts, and a few zingers about Andy Warhol and 'comic book artists.' Names are dropped, rivalries are mentioned, fate is suggested - even Rothko's eventual suicide seems foreshadowed in the verbal sparring of the two men.

Early in the play, Rothko outlines his demands on the young assistant, a would-be painter himself: 'I am not your father, I am not your rabbi, I am your employer. You work for me.' Over the various short scenes, Ken begins to emerge as his own man, but Rothko has no interest in him except as an assistant. The brisk 90-minute play is performed without intermission - a longer contest between the two men might have been simply too much of a lecture on personalities. As it is, Red is economical and lean.

It is also expertly staged and performed. Richard E. T. White, chair of the theater department at Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts since 1995, has extensive experience in directing on local and regional stages. He has polished Red into a scintillating drama, exploring every subtle area of the script and going for broke in the all-out theatrical moments. Denis Arndt, one of the most popular stage actors in the Northwest - a Seattle veteran since 1973 and a member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for more than 15 seasons - has done many great works in his Emerald City years, but he has never been better. At the peak of his lengthy career, Arndt creates a Rothko who is gruff and full of himself but also projects an inner warmth that helps explain why he was tolerated - even revered - by so many. The Broadway and London productions evidentially created a more unsympathetic central character. Rothko's warmer sense of self is a welcome contract in this fine Seattle production.

Connor Toms, a young actor with a variety of credits at the Rep, Intiman, Seattle Shakespeare, and other regional theaters, is like Ken, the assistant, at the start of his career. He creates a believable character, one who might, indeed, work for two years with the demanding Rothko. His brief key scenes are well-delivered and, overall, he makes an appealing and sympathetic foil.

The scene, costume, and lighting designs are all first-rate. Ditto the sound design and original music by Brendan Patrick Hogan, a local artist who works full-time for ACT. This is a Red to treasure, a success in every dimension. Highest recommendation. Good seating is available in all price ranges for all remaining performances through March 24. Budget-minded theater fans should be sure to ask about student/senior 'rush' tickets, last-minute pricing, and other specials. Complete ticket information is available at (206) 443-2222 or at www.seattlerep.org.

The Portland Art Museum is hosting a survey of Rothko paintings through May 27. Details at (503) 226-2811. A major Portland theater staged Red just before the Rep's production. A trip to Portland might be just the thing for Red fans.

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