Red by John Logan, playing the Indiana Repertory Theatre's Upperstage Oct. 14-Nov. 9, is about two painters in the late 1950s. One, the famous, financially successful Mark Rothko (Henry Woronicz), is working on a big commission. The other is a young man (Zach Kenney), never named on stage that I remember, who comes to assist him in his studio.
The younger man (“Ken” in the program) expects to be mentored as well as paid. The older man expects to be worshipped as well as assisted with his brush washing and canvas stretching. Although they refer to dozens of other painters, writers, and musicians, neither man seems to have heard of any female artists of any kind. Both are comfortably clueless about the limits of their worldview and experiences. I am glad I don’t have to live with either of them.
However, I leaped to applaud at the end of the show because I loved the rich food for thought explicit in their conversations about art and implied in their relationship. Where is the line between protecting and controlling? Is respecting what came before and then smashing it truly the only effective model for an artist? How much should one’s personal life inform one’s art? Does art even exist without an audience? How important is context? Which is most essential: art, artist or audience? If making art is like pinning butterflies, why do it?
And what, if anything, has changed in 50 years?
I also delighted in the show’s subtle homages to other art forms besides painting. One conversation in which the two men list things that are red is performed almost like a poetry slam. A priming of a huge blank canvas is accomplished almost like a dance. Lovely music plays on a turntable in one corner of Ann Sheffield’s exquisitely detailed set and becomes another element in the two men’s power struggle when Ken wants to introduce Chet Baker’s jazz into their daily listening mix. (Sound design by Todd Mack Reischman.)
Best of all, the two actors’ layered portrayals of these imperfect, passionate men, under James Still’s sensitive direction, moved me to remember why I, too, value art so much, especially my favorite art form: live theatre.
The show left me curious about Rothko’s work. But even more, it made me want to revisit some of my own favorite paintings in person. I'd also like to see up close the paintings that our own Kyle Ragsdale made to go with the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s 2014-2015 season.