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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Friday, April 29, 2016

Theater Review - Red

Written by John Logan
Directed by Ian Belknap
Where: Studio Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Wednesday, April 28, 7:30pm
Photos by Paul Cerro

I am not, nor do I find myself likely becoming, an "art person."  I don't particularly enjoy going to art museums.  I don't fondly stare at a painting -- be it abstract or not -- and ponder the artist's intentions or how it "makes me feel."  Part of this likely stems from the notion that I can barely draw a stick figure and the fact that I failed "scissors" in preschool (seriously, so I've been told).  I've tried at some of the biggest and the best -- the Louvre, the National Gallery in London, MoMA -- but I'm not roused by the process.  While I don't imagine I'm going to ever change, I won't avoid the proposition of returning to some of those aforementioned galleries, but I won't likely ever seek them out on my own.

I say all of that only to state that I went into the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players' production of the Tony Award-winning Red expecting to be bored out of my mind.  Fortunately, that wasn't the case in the slightest.  Told in their small black box studio, Red weaves the (presumably true-ish) tale of artist Mark Rothko (played by Stephen Pelinski) as he prepares a series of paintings to be displayed at the currently in-construction Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the late 1950s.  Receiving a $35,000 commission for the work, Rothko hires a young artist named Ken (Michael Gotch) to help him prepare canvases for his very large pieces of art that all have the similarity of being various shades of red rectangles upon red backgrounds.  (Obviously, I'm oversimplifying things so no need for art critics to shame me for my poor man's description.)  As the ninety-minute intermissionless play progresses, Rothko challenges the naïve Ken to open his mind to the various questions that good art makes people ponder, pushing the burgeoning painter to grow in both his own art and his mind.  However, Rothko's aggressive and temperamental teaching methods begin to shape Ken into someone who recognizes faults in Rothko's own beliefs, perhaps reaching that typical point where the student becomes the teacher - a notion that is touched upon more than once as the play progresses.

Amid another gloriously lived-in set by Stefanie Hansen, Pelinski's Rothko and Gotch's Ken really spring to life as they talk their way through the quite verbose work.  There's a type of dance going on between the two REP members -- in words, in movement (our eyes are always darting around the up-close-and-personal staging), and even in the physical act of painting itself which, at times, turns into an almost intimate experience mirroring lovemaking complete with heavy breathing and smoking at its conclusion.  That last comparison may sound odd, but makes a bit of sense -- Rothko is giving birth to these paintings and his attachment to them may seem off-putting at first to someone like Ken, but the sense of boastful pride grows to be understandable.  Arrogance and an oddly fitting hulking machismo radiates from Mr. Pelinski's performance as the gruff, strongly convicted, and brutally honest Rothko who stands in a stark contrast to the initially timid and inward nature of Mr. Gotch's Ken.  The duo captivates and holds the audience's attention with both getting chances to shine in pivotal scenes that reflect their ever-changing points of view.

While congrats are certainly in order to director Ian Belknap who has crafted a visually appealing and compellingly acted show, the play itself as written by John Logan at times teeters on the edge of pretension which admittedly echoes my feelings towards the art world in general (hence the whole point of the first paragraph of this review).  When Rothko asks, "What do you see," I want to blurt out, "A red rectangle and nothing more."  This viewpoint is actually mentioned in the play by Rothko himself as he almost sticks his nose up in the air to the uncultured masses who see no value in his work.  Logan's play tries to be more than just "a red rectangle" and I think it truly is -- however, I think it's also a piece that may need to be studied in order to appreciate its full potential.  Seeing it for a brief ninety minutes as words quickly fly at the audience may not allow us to grasp all of the deep meanings Logan is trying to impart on us.  In that way, Red is perhaps much like a piece of art. Looking at it for mere moments may not allow us to fully appreciate what it's offering, but if we examine it more closely, we may begin to "feel" what the artist has given us on the canvas.  Then again, maybe not.  And I guess that's the beauty with art...and the art of theater.

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