"Think! Think!" bellows artist Mark Rothko to his assistant Ken repeatedly throughout "Red," the Tony-winning play by John Logan that made its Central Florida debut Friday in an Orlando Shakespeare Theater production.
And thinking is surely what Logan wants his audience to do during his satisfying play as he raises points that flit from art appreciation to pseudo-Freudian analysis to the internal struggle between public success and personal integrity.
In other words, Logan's mostly engrossing play isn't the sort of entertainment at which patrons can smile blankly or maybe clap along to a fizzy musical number.
Not that there's anything wrong with that sort of pop-culture artistic endeavor, Ken would say. Why can't true art be popular with the masses? And then Rothko, grandly portrayed by John Herrera, could voice his disgust with such rebuttals as "Do you really think Andy Warhol will be hanging in museums in a hundred years?"
Of course, in that case — one of the play's more obviously jokey lines — Warhol's likely to get the last laugh.
The real Mark Rothko was born in Latvia; grew up in Portland, Ore.; and made a name for himself as a painter, best known for his iconic abstract style of depicting rectangles and use of color, especially red. He committed suicide in 1970. The play "Red" is set at the end of the 1950s, when Rothko was commissioned to paint murals for a new luxury restaurant in New York City.
At the Shakes, director Patrick Flick has given his two actors plenty to do with their hands while they engage their brains. The day-to-day operations of being an artist — stretching canvases, mixing paint, assembling frames — take on a deeper meaning, too: The dual lives we humans try to lead as we perform mundane chores to support ourselves while dreaming of lofty ideals and struggling to express ourselves on a higher plane.
In a cathartic sequence of frenzied painting by the two men, Flick provocatively equates the artistic process with sexual release, leaving one artist recumbent on the floor, breathing heavily, while the other lights a cigarette.
The action plays out on a funky, paint-splattered set by Bob Phillips that has one foot planted firmly in reality as a 1950s studio, yet with its cavelike atmosphere also feels removed from time or place, a reflection of the universality of the issues at hand.
Ironically, even as playwright Logan has Rothko disparage clichés, he falls back on a few himself: The crusty mentor vs. the bright-eyed apprentice is not exactly unfamiliar in drama. Neither is the rather abruptly pat ending in which the men learn a valuable lesson from each other. (Though to be fair, part of that is based on what actually happened with Rothko's restaurant murals.)
Herrera, as Rothko, never shies away from the artist's egotism and maintains a strong internal presence; the audience is always aware he walks in his own world.
Buddy Haardt smartly doesn't overplay Ken's nervousness and awkwardness at dealing with Rothko's grandstanding manner, which makes his transition to vocal devil's advocate feel more natural than the script would suggest.
Their uneasy camaraderie is crucial to the piece, and the fact it works so well meant I was holding my breath as the two rattled off a rapid-fire laundry list of objects, emotions and shadings associated with the color red in a thrilling exchange.
I may never look at that most emotional of colors the same way again.
•What: An Orlando Shakespeare Theater production of the play by John Logan
• Length: 1:40, no intermission
• Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
• When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through April 22
• Tickets: $20-$38
• Call: 407-447-1700
• Online: OrlandoShakes.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times