"What do you see?"
This question opens John Logan's Red, the first words famed abstract painter Mark Rothko (played by FrEd Sullivan, Jr.) speaks to his new assistant, Ken (Marc Dante Mancini). Every attempt to answer that question – either in the moment of first meetings or in any of the scenes to follow – sparks an emotional investment and a challenging discussion centering on art and its creative process, encompassing themes of life, tragedy, and, ultimately, mortality.
Logan's Red, which won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, focuses on the two intense years Rothko spent creating a set of murals – rectangles and blocks of bold red tones and black patches – commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram building.
FrEd Sullivan, Jr., the company's resident director, takes to the Gamm stage for first time as the mercurial Rothko. Sullivan manages his character's lively "artistic" temperament and swift emotional turns with ease and panache. He waxes philosophical and poetic on the nature of art, the tragedy of mankind, and the meaning of the universe in one moment, then transitions mid-sentence into a fiery, red-faced diatribe against the new generation of painters while passionately denouncing humanity's lack of understanding and appreciation of great artworks.
Marc Dante Mancini communicates Ken's awed wonder in the presence of both the celebrated artist and his cutting-edge paintings, and he ably incorporates Rothko's speeches to layer confidence into Ken's character, more assuredly expressing "what he sees" as the changing scenes tick off the months of the men's association. Mancini gives his strongest performances when Ken squares off against Rothko's impassioned discourses, employing the slightest of pauses to deflect the other man's bluster before neatly arguing the opposing point of view.
Sullivan and Mancini collaborate well as scene partners, solidly managing brisk verbal sparring, deeply emotional revelations, and even rising to animated playfulness, this at its most evident in their gleeful, energetic speed painting session.
The Gamm's intimate performance space is ideal for this production. The smell of paint lingers in the air, and even patrons in the back rows can hear excess color dropping from brushes to spatter on the floor. Rothko's murals surround the stage and the audience, giving immediacy to the production's subject matter and providing the up-close setting their creator required to infuse his work with life and movement.
Parents, please note: Red contains strong language.
The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre presents Red through December 16, 2012. The Gamm is located at 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI. Ticket prices are $36 and $45 and discount rates are available for subscribers, groups, seniors and students. To purchase tickets, contact the box office at (401) 723-4266 or visit The Gamm online at www.gammtheatre.org.
Pictured: FrEd Sullivan, Jr. and Marc Dante Mancini. Photo by Peter Goldberg.