Theater Review: Return to a Masterpiece with Powerful TN Rep ‘Red’

RedGaining further appreciation and understanding or spotting something one has missed – for these and other reasons there are potential benefits to revisiting a work of art. Such is certainly the case when seeing Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s powerful production of John Logan’s Red.

This marks the second full production by a Nashville professional theater of the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Play – Blackbird Theater painted its own vivid piece of the show in Oct. 2012. And it is also the second time Tennessee Rep has dealt with Logan’s brilliant look at the masterful painter Mark Rothko; the first was when the play was presented in staged reading in Feb. 2012 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts as part of its REPAloud series.

The number two also figures in the play and its focus: It’s a two-hander covering a two-year period in the late 1950s when Rothko was principally working on a commission to provide murals for the Seagram Building’s Four Seasons Restaurant. The temperamental artist (Chip Arnold) takes on a young assistant named Ken (Benjamin Reed) who at first is in awe of, and intimidated by, his now-famous employer. But as they spend more time in Rothko’s New York City studio Ken finds not only his voice but the courage to question the opinions his boss splashes on the canvas of their conversations.

Gary C. Hoff’s brilliance as a scenic designer lies in the fact that his sets mask their artifice and realistically beckon us to enter the world of the play. Such is the case with his work for this show; from the dingy windows (through which part of Michael Barnett’s expert lighting design shows between scenes) to the canvas-hanging apparatus Rothko used we feel we’re actually in the abandoned YMCA gym at 222 Bowery watching the great painter work to loud strains of Mozart and Schubert from a phonograph.

Red 2Arnold brings that prominent artist to pulsating life, and along with Reed absorbs us with the ideas and emotions that pour out of the twosome’s intense interactions. Rothko’s righteous (sometimes self-righteous) and often angry protests about those he viewed as barbarians (too long a list to place here) – Logan liberally mixes quotes attributed to Rothko into his intelligent and engaging script – are delivered with appropriate authority and indignation by the veteran performer; but more importantly he also finds the pain within the conflicted man who would later take his own life, and in doing so allows us to care about the vulnerable man behind the artist’s often imperious façade. And as Rothko says at one point, “Silence is so accurate” – Arnold knows how to fill non-verbal beats with revealing significance.

So does Reed, who thoroughly succeeds in a very difficult role. It’s often tougher to play a character that doesn’t have as much to say as his onstage counterpart without either upstaging or coming across as a cipher, and Ken’s character arc involves a clear transformation over the short playing time of 90 minutes. Reed’s work since his Belmont University days has been quite good, and his very nuanced and thoughtful style of acting should keep him quite busy for years to come.

The production’s other elements are in well-arrayed order; those include Trish Clark’s paint-stained costumes (a nod to Colleen Burns Garatoni as well in that regard), Evelyn Pearson’s numerous art-studio properties and Ricky Lighthall’s classical-plus-Chet Baker sound. René D. Copeland’s careful and well-paced direction completes the potent portrait.

“There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend … One day the black will swallow the red,” Rothko tells Ken at the end of Red’s second scene. Not so long as we have artists and the life-illuminating art they create, and not so long as companies like Tennessee Rep present compelling drama that draws us back again and again.

Tennessee Repertory Theatre presents John Logan’s Red directed by René D. Copeland through March 1. Performances are at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 7:30 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Johnson Theater (505 Deaderick St.). Tickets (starting at $45) are available online by clicking here.

Special Events

Seeing Red:
The Passion, Madness and Desperation of Rothko
Monday, Feb. 17, 6:30 pm
Wilson Hall Auditorium, Vanderbilt (111 21st Ave. South)
Reservations are suggested as seating is limited. Click here for reservations or call (615) 244-4878. Directions and parking instructions will be sent to those who RSVP in a separate e-mail.

Tennessee Repertory Theatre is pleased to partner with Vanderbilt University’s Master of Liberal Arts and Science Program and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts for a special event focused on the Tony Award-winning play Red by John Logan. The event will feature scenes from Tennessee Rep’s production of Red and panel discussion featuring Dr. Leah Lowe (Associate Professor of Theatre and Chair of the Theatre Department), Dr. Mel Ziegler (Professor of Art and Chair of the Art Department), and Dr. Susan H. Edwards (Executive Director, Frist Center for the Visual Arts).

Cocktails with the Cast of Red
Thursday, Feb. 20, following the performance
The Rymer Gallery (233 5th Ave. North)
Click here for more information and to purchase package.

Join Producing Artistic Director René D. Copeland and the cast of Red for cocktails, coffee, and dessert immediately following the performance on Thursday, February 20. This intimate opportunity to talk art–in all its form and function–will be hosted by The Rymer Gallery, located just around the corner from the Johnson Theater on 5th Avenue.



*Photos by Shane Burkeen and Michael Barnett courtesy Tennessee Repertory Theatre.

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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 from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. 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 (