IF YOU GO
What: 90-minute drama dissecting the creative process of artist Mark Rothko
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through March 25
Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers
Cost: $40 & $45
Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org
Something else: Free parking across the street
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
COMING TO NAPLES
"Red" closes at Florida Rep on March 25; the show moves to the Daniels Pavilion at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts for a six-show run from Tuesday, March 27 - Sunday, March 31. Tickets are $49; call (239) 597-1900.
FORT MYERS — Florida Repertory Theatre goes behind the scenes of the creative process in their latest production. "Red," a seductive, sometimes sexy, sometimes disturbing look at painter Mark Rothko, tries to dissect the essence of capital "A" ART. It's fascinating, if not always satisfying.
Writer John Logan crafts a fictional picture of Rothko as the artist struggled to create a series of murals for The Four Seasons restaurant in New York's then-new Seagram building. "Red" won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play.
The show features only two characters. William McNulty, balding, wiry hair askew, eyes squinting in contemplation of his latest creation, cigarette glowing, brings Rothko to vivid, indignant life. Tall, thin, long-limbed and angular David McElwee plays assistant Ken with at first timidity and then growing confidence.
McNulty spits venom as the angry, impassioned Rothko. He embodies the fierce living, breathing, will to create that drives great artists of any stripe. His contempt for anything and everything beneath him (including gallery owners, critics, assistants, etc.) bristles. Cacioppo allows McNulty to both stalk the stage with towering anger during Rothko's tantrums and play the gracious mentor during his rare good spells.
David McElwee's Ken blooms during the play. The actor allows the character to develop slowly, from buttoned-up and closed-in to someone who fights Rothko on equal footing. With each circle in the endless pas de deux, McElwee visibly imbues the character with more personality, more strength and more life.
In 90 short minutes, "Red" flings thoughts and philosophy and ideas about the stage like drops of paint skittering across a Jackson Pollock canvas. But don't mention the Pollock word. Rothko will bite your head off. The show tries to examine life, death, power, commercialism, inspiration, the student-teacher relationship, aging and more.
At its best, "Red" can be riveting. Director Robert Cacioppo stages the constant verbal battles as a tiger-and-mouse game - with Rothko being the fiery, unpredictable tiger. Outbursts send packets of paint hurtling across the stage or see McNulty kicking a bucket while McElwee cowers. In these moments, the audience can feel the tension of an artist struggling with his legacy and the inability to create and communicate.
During its low points, the show descends into pretentious artistic psychobabble, with the characters spouting Nietzsche and going on about light, dark, order, chaos, Apollo and Dionysus. Like the moody Rothko, "Red" often veers wildly between sedate and sociopath - even from minute to minute.
Cacioppo takes steps to keep the audience focused on the play during these wandering discussions. McElwee and McNulty build canvas frames, move lights, mix paints, clean brushes and shuffle items around the studio. The process proves engrossing - and offers a peek inside an artist's studio.
While the play offers a vivid, fascinating and intense picture of the creative process and a snapshot of Rothko, "Red" often struggles to piece together a larger theme out of its disparate Medusa of ideas. Creation is hard, yes - but then what?
"Red" makes its strongest impact as it shifts to black. Death bubbles up again and again, in references to colors and specific incidents. Rothko talks proudly of his generation "stomping Cubism to death," yet rails against the coming influence of disposable Pop Art as embodied by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others. One of the play's few touching moments, a subtle nod to Rothko's eventual suicide in 1970, drives home the message that all things must pass - and that the young do eventually inherit the earth.
The play's signature scene resembles sex in as much as painting can be said to approximate the act. McNulty and McElwee take two buckets of dark plum primer, two house-painting brushes and attack a six-foot square canvas in an orgy of fast, furious brushstrokes. There's even a cigarette and clean-up afterward. Note that these are the only moments in a 90-minute play about art to show pigment being put to canvas.
The scene plays out without words. McNulty slashes away at the top half, McElwee slings madly away at the bottom. Paint drips into McElwee's face, hair and arms. He continues swinging the brush, racing like a mad thing to complete his half of the canvas. You can feel the audience sucking in a breath and holding it, watching, waiting, wondering, until the final swipe. Then McNulty exhales and lights a cigarette. Fin.
In many ways, the scene demands to be read as a metaphor for both birth and death. McElwee's vigorous Ken, representing "youth," emerges dripping with red paint, bloody as if from birth. McElwee plays the moments after the orgy of painting, when Ken finally cracks the door on his personal life, wonderfully. This is his flowering. In contrast, McNulty's Rothko exits from the event sated - even though this will be but the first coat of many to go on the canvas.
The two men also switch sides of the canvas during the scene - a symbolic passing of the torch. It's a brilliant moment, although the script obfuscates the impact by prefacing the deed itself with a droning four pages about mortality, gods and suicide.
Richard Crowell transforms the Florida Rep stage into Rothko's massive unused gymnasium studio. Enormous canvases - representations of Rothko's work - emerge like hidden gifts from slots in the back wall during each scene. The stark paintings hang from pulleys and divide the space into "rooms," giving the vast stage a sense of proportion. Cluttered, paint-spattered workstations littered with buckets, egg cartons, paper bags, pails, brushes, cigarettes and bottles of liquor dot the space. The color red - in tones of rust, crimson and maroon - make the stage pulsate outward.
Lighting plays a role in this show like few others. Rothko kept the lights in his studio at a funereal level to focus attention on the paintings. Todd O. Wren suspends bare bulbs from the rafters and pops footlights on the stage to achieve the effect without leaving the audience peering into gloom. In one illuminating scene, the stage lights go to full, bathing the paintings in harsh incandescence; the moment vividly illustrates Rothko's point.
"Red" tumbles through the philosophical turmoil of creating art. If it doesn't actually shed light on the process - or artist Mark Rothko - the show at least serves up a distinctly edgy and entertaining piece of theater. McNulty and McElwee fling the words of a literate script back and forth while surrounded by an array of stunning works of art. Go for the show. Go for the art. Go to experience sex as carried out by brush and pigment.
Note: "Red" closes at Florida Rep on March 25; the show moves to the Daniels Pavilion at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts for a six-show run from Tuesday, March 27 - Sunday, March 31. Tickets are $49; call (239) 597-1900.
"Red red wine you make me feel so fine." Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.