For anyone who has ever looked at an abstract expressionist painting and thought, “My kid can do that,” this is the play for you. Red is a window on Mark Rothko, a workman-like painter who had no time for simple expressions and pretty pictures. Only the deepest, most sorrowful feelings would do, and he devoted his life to making them appear on canvas in large swaths of deep scarlet, gold, and black.
It’s New York City, 1958, and Rothko (Fred Sullivan Jr.) takes a commission to design murals for a swank restaurant going into the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. To help him execute the paintings, he hires a young assistant named Ken (Marc Dante Mancini). At Rothko’s studio, art is a labor of the spirit, not of polite conversation, and they both throw themselves into the process with gusto, arguing painting more often than actually doing it. “What do you see?!” is Rothko’s, and eventually Ken’s, constant refrain.
Mancini and Sullivan are a dynamic team here. Mancini’s portrayal could easily be overlooked as his role is a foil to Rothko’s fears and desires, but the character of Ken turns out to have his own deep-seated emotions that play just as much of an important role in the narrative.
There’s a considerable amount of art history to take in in this show. Despite being part of the ‘50s abstract expressionists, Rothko held the old masters to a level that was sacred. There is constant talk of Carravagio, Rembrandt, and Matisse, in addition to Rothko’s contemporaries Jasper Johns, Picasso, and Pollack. If you’re an art lover you won’t be disappointed, and if you’re new to the world of art, you’ll discover the depths Rothko sees in those big paintings you think your kid can do.
Red runs through December 16 at The Gamm Theatre in Providence. For information or to purchase tickets, call 401-723-4622 or visit www.gammtheatre.org.