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'Red' is The Unicorn Theatre's compelling new play

In
Jim Birdsall and Am Cordes play Mark Rothko and Ken in the Cythia Levin-directed play ‘Red.’
Jim Birdsall and Am Cordes play Mark Rothko and Ken in the Cythia Levin-directed play ‘Red.’

Kansas City’s Unicorn Theatre, at 38th and Main streets, premiered highly-acclaimed playwright John Logan’s play “Red.”

Logan received the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League and the 2010 Tony Award for “Red.”

The play is directed by Cynthia Levin. She is entering her 33rd season with the Unicorn Theatre as the Producing Artistic Director. She has served as a director, actor, designer and producer for more than 200 productions at the Unicorn.

Levin was quick to inform the opening night audience of the relaxed atmosphere as she jokingly ushered late-comers to their seats, offering them the chance to “share her light” as she introduced the two-man cast, the wonderful set and a brief outline of “Red’s” background.

“Red” itself is a startling snapshot of a brilliant artist at the height of his career. The play transports you into the mind of the master abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, a misunderstood man for whom paintings are “pulsating” life forces and intended to “rip your guts out and expose your soul.”

The play captures the eccentric painter’s two-year struggle to complete a lucrative set of murals for Manhattan’s exclusive Four Seasons restaurant. An aspiring young artist named Ken joins Rothko. This play incorporates the contrasting artistic opinion of the traditional Rothko, and the young, vibrant and modernist awareness of his apprentice Ken.

Debates rage from philosophical thinkers such as Plato, Socrates and Nietzsche to the “talentless” exhibits of Jackson Pollock – as Rothko so eloquently puts it.

As the title suggests, color is a key source of conversation and meaning in this back-and-forth dialogue as a pessimistic Rothko aims to save the color red from the consumption of black, which he claims to be a modernist evil.

Rothko is a by-the-book traditionalist. He wants to use his paintings to evoke passion, thought and interpretation through his use of contrasting lights alongside darks, subject matter and the personal meaning of artistic representation. He is a student of the Rembrandt, Turner and Michelangelo school of thought. For him, art and color are more than just the paint drips of a drunken Pollock. He even labels Pollock’s death as suicide, arguing that anybody who drinks a bottle of bourbon a day and goes out driving is seeking death, a theory which greatly amused the full opening-night house.

On the other side of the persistent and negative bickering of Rothko comes his new associate, Ken. He is simply stricken by all of his artistic duties, questioning the overall contribution to the atmosphere of Rothko’s sunlight-absent studio where he is labeled as just an employee. He is there to serve Rothko’s artistic career, not to develop his own.

Ken is the voice of the youthful modernist movement. Although he is not outwardly a modernist painter, he is very much aware of the publicity, commissions and consumerist culture which the latest crop of artists are simply cashing in on. Ken is a timid and nervous young man when he first steps into Rothko’s studio, yet as the story unfolds, he becomes more confident in himself. He expresses distaste at some of Rothko’s claims and even forms the impression that Rothko’s Four Seasons mural commission is similar to that of the modern artistic movement, which is preying on the consummation of art on a domestic and “fashionable” level.

The dominating theme of “Red” is the fear of change, and the unwillingness to conform to popular culture. Rothko is set in his ways, but Ken is open to new ways of thinking within the art world. This makes for heated debates, conflicts in character and opinionated criticisms of what “Red” actually is to an artist. Suicide becomes an underlying topic in the sense that Rothko sees the color red as representation of negativity, while Ken sees it for what it is: a simple color. When asked “What is red to you?” Ken sees poppies, clown noses and the sunrise, while Rothko envisages arterial blood, razor blade wounds and embarrassment.

In the climax of “Red,” the opinions of the characters seem to come full circle, albeit that Rothko is now aware of his narrow-mindedness and fear of change. Fittingly, the first and last dialogue between Rothko and Ken is repeated to show this circular argument. Rothko asks “What do you see?” while after an eternity of deliberation, Ken can only respond with one simple word: “Red.”

Scenic Designer Gary Mosby has done an excellent job at the Unicorn Theatre. The set is basic and dimly lit, but extremely effective for this specific performance. The clichéd elements of an artist’s studio are all represented, including the canvases, the multiple buckets and splashes of mixed paint, and the foreground use of portrait frames, stage lighting and crumpled paper strewn across the floor are unique in this rendition of “Red.”

Jim Birdsall (Rothko) and Sam Cordes (Ken) deliver masterful performances of what is a very intellectual and demanding script. Their diction and passion is excellent, while their delivery is second to none and this story of Rothko’s struggles is expertly executed.

“Red” will run from Sept. 22 through Oct. 2, and is well worth a watch. For box office tickets and information, visit www.unicorntheatre.org or stop by 3828 Main St.

lharman@unews.com

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