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Theater Review: Blackbird Paints Vivid Portrait with ‘Red’

Red 1“What do you see?” That question comes from the mouth of painter Mark Rothko as John Logan’s play Red begins. It spurs the arguments – and revealing answers – that follow in the vivid portrait of art and life that Blackbird Theater produces.

Yes, there is a powerful intellectual tussle going on in this multi-awarding work, but the emotional underpinnings of those thoughts frame the drama. Those emotions are expressed with masterful artistry by actors Ronnie Meek and Justin Boccitto. Director Mike Fernandez and his collaborators have crafted a remarkable production.

Red 2The setting is Rothko’s New York studio in the late 1950s. The middle-aged artist has taken on a twenty-something assistant named Ken. At first Ken is rather deferential to his famous and celebrated employer, but as work progresses on murals commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant at the new Seagram Building, he begins to challenge his boss’s statements about such weighty matters as the nature of art and the mortality of mankind.

Meek is onstage when we first enter Shamblin Theatre, seated downstage left in a chair. He’s not seated for long, though, moving about Andy Bleiler’s wonderful array of canvases, equipment, tables and other art studio trappings soon after our arrival like the bundle of fitful energy one might suppose Rothko (who committed suicide in 1970) was.

Red 3The virtuoso Meek knows when a crescendo should come; like the arias Rothko listens to as he works, the actor doesn’t give us anything before the appropriate beat. A good example comes in the no-intermission play’s second scene after Ken advises Rothko to add red to a painting. The master erupts:

ROTHKO. I wasn’t talking to you! (Beat) DON’T YOU EVER DO THAT AGAIN! By what right do you speak? By what right do you express an opinion on my work? Who the f–k are you? What have you done? What have you seen? Where have you earned the right to exist here with me and these things you don’t understand? “RED”?! You want to paint the thing?! Go ahead – here’s red – ! (He throws paint packets at Ken.) And red! And red! And red! – I don’t even know what that means! What does “red” mean to me? You mean scarlet? You mean crimson? You mean plum-mulberry-magenta-burgundy-salmon-carmine-carnelian-coral? Anything but “red”! What is “RED”?!

Red 4Meek conjures the Russian-born Rothko’s hard-drinking, chain-smoking, black-is-death persona so clearly that one never catches him acting. The same is true for Boccitto as Ken, who during the play’s two-year span believably grows in knowledge, insight and confidence that his beliefs are no less valid than Rothko’s. This is pointed up when Ken uses some of his boss’s own words to defend Pop Art purveyors like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol:

KEN. So said the Cubist, the second before you stomped him to death. “Tragic, really, to grow superfluous in your own lifetime”… Right? …”The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him”… Isn’t that what you said? …You guys went after the Cubists and Surrealists and, boy, did you love it. And now your time has come and you don’t want to go. Well, exit stage left, Rothko. Because Pop Art has banished Abstract Expressionism … I only pray to God they have more generosity of spirit than you do, and allow you some dignity as you go. (He glances around at the paintings.) Consider: the last gasp of a dying race … Futility. (Beat) Don’t worry; you can always sign menus for money.

Red 5Such verbal fireworks certainly charge the proceedings, but as each reveals what’s behind their war of words we learn painful pasts formed the present pictures of their lives. Meek and Boccitto adroitly utilize the focus and control that only well-prepared, experienced professionals can produce; those tools keep us completely attentive to the rollercoaster ride their characters take us on.

In addition to Fernandez and Bleiler the lighting of David Hardy and June Kingsbury’s costumes position the play and its characters perfectly. Art consultant Dane Carder and painters Amy Anstey, Daniel Box, Laura Carter, Sydny Louque, Seth Lykins, Grant Pitkin, Kelsey Shipman, Alex Shumate and Cassi Wright deserve kudos for their contributions too.

Red 6A final appraisal: As their third season starts Blackbird Theater founders Wes Driver and Greg Greene continue to mount top-notch shows. Red is the perfect blend of their desire to produce fine works with the best available talent onstage and off.

Red continues through Oct. 20 at the Shamblin Theatre on the campus of David Lipscomb University. For tickets and more information please visit BlackbirdNashville.com.

Red 7*Photos by Kenn Stilger of Heavenly Perspective Photography courtesy Blackbird Theater.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Backstage and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).

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