Sunday, November 20, 2011

Theatre review: "Red" at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Sunday 20th November 2011

Looking at the poster and the program book for Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Red by John Logan, you might think it’s a holiday show. Maybe something about jolly Santa in his shiny suit sliding down an inevitably clean chimney loaded with gifts. That’s not in this package. This play says serious things, things to stimulate your thinking.

Actually you might respond to that often vibrant color in any number of ways, and many such meanings are splattered and strewn all over the floor and the walls hanging out with a somewhat fictionalized version of American modern painter Mark Rothko, dynamically portrayed by Jeff Still. Director Pamela Berlin has superbly paced, shaped and shaded this, vibrating within an impressively realistic setting devised by Michael Schweikardt.

Playwright Logan exceptionally articulates a pointed discourse about the nature of art and the nature of people who create it. The character of Rothko is the medium. But Rothko could be any self-obsessed artist working in any discipline in any time.

The discourse constantly provokes us to think about what goes into creating art and what comes out of how we perceive it. Because, as Logan points out via Rothko, the viewer, the hearer, the listener is a significant part of the equation.

So, as far as the play goes, on your side of the equation, you could find the many philosophical strokes and swipes, the esoteric ruminations, the polemical round-about, too much talk and too little action. Or you could, like me, remain fascinated and engaged.

The play doesn’t really establish emotional connections, although there is a second fictional character, essentially a Rothko sounding board, for all of the 100 minutes, a young assistant named Ken. In Ken, Logan sketches a person who moves away from being a mere recipient of Rothko’s often agitated pronouncements and becomes an intense inquisitor, goading and provoking Rothko about his faith in himself and in his own significance. The intensity of the talk and of the spiky arguments vibrate and seethe with ideas, even as we get some exposure to what kind of a person Rothko must have been.

Jack Cutmore Scott makes the most and best of Ken, a humanly vulnerable, nearly believable portrait despite interpreting a character who’s essentially a dramatic device.

The dimensions of this play frame eternal questions about our relationship to art and artists, and you may come away, as I did, with fresh perceptions about the many ideas laid out. And, should that be so, consider how well playwright Logan, with his art, has created something worth your time and attention.

Red continues through December 11 at Pittsburgh Public Theater, downtown on Penn Avenue. For tickets and info: 412/316.1600 or

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