REVIEW: The color of life is ‘Red’ paints a picture of pain

“Red” is a pressure cooker of a show. For 90 minutes the audience is never allowed a moment of rest, even during the most quiet scenes of the script. This isn’t a nice night out at the theater, but it’s a rewarding one. This is a tour de force of emotion as Rothko and his painting assistant Ken delve into the meaning of art, life, death and fragility. 

AURORA | The Vintage Theater’s production of “Red,” the Tony-winning play about the life of artist Mark Rothko, isn’t for the faint of heart.

“Red” is a pressure cooker of a show. For 90 minutes the audience is never allowed a moment of rest, even during the most quiet scenes of the script. This isn’t a nice night out at the theater, but it’s a rewarding one. This is a tour de force of emotion as Rothko and his painting assistant Ken delve into the meaning of art, life, death and fragility.

The show tells the story of Rothko, played by Phil Luna, and Ken, played by J.W. Spina, over a two year period in the late ‘50s as Rothko works on a series of paintings intended for the new Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. Phil is Rothko’s wide-eyed assistant, awed by the master in his presence. That relationship slowly transforms as the two work together, and in that transformation, the audience is treated to conversations about color, emotion, fame and the volatility of the nature of art.

Rothko, who just 11 years after the time that this play is set committed suicide, is a man who is assured of his place as a master but who hates what that entails. At one point, while talking about the parasites that are art collectors wanting a Rothko for their wall, not because of the emotion his painting elicits but because they want to one-up the neighbors, he laments, “I’ve become a noun.”

This isn’t an easy script to pull off and demands extraordinary amounts of skill and subtlety from its two actors. Luna is required to go on long monologues about his work, his contemporaries like Jackson Pollock and the meaning behind it all. Spina must transform as the story plays out, morphing from a timid aspiring painter to a confident man that must not only hold his own against Rothko, but force the hurricane of a man to confront his own hypocrisy and place in the world.

This play works because of the amazing talent and skills both Luna and Spina bring to their respective roles. The interplay between the two actors is at times mesmerizing and at others heartbreaking. In the hands of lesser actors, this show would flounder under the weight of its subject matter and dialogue-heavy scenes. Instead the Vintage has on its hands a show that should be talked about during award season.

Such fine acting needs the proper setting and the team behind “Red” have obliged. The black box at Vintage has been turned into an immersive experience. From Luna’s Rothko spending a good part of his time in the midst of the audience, to the reproductions of Rothko’s artwork done by students from the Denver Waldorf School, there is never a moment when one doesn’t feel like they’ve had the chance to slip unnoticed into Rothko’s studio and quietly observe a tortured genius at work.

Beyond just a show for lovers of character driven theater, “Red” is a master class in understanding art. Rothko isn’t an artist because he had a choice. His drive to create and elicit emotion in his audience comes screaming out of him like a banshee’s cry. I challenge anyone who watches this show to look at art, lighting and color in the same way again.

This show isn’t for someone looking for escapism or simply to be entertained. But that is the definition of why theater is at its finest possess a transformational power. Just like art, it is only when the viewer is challenged that their own education can begin.

4.5/5

“Red” at the Vintage Theater. Playing now through Jan. 7:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat. 2:30 p.m. Sun.

Tickets $30 for adults, $25 for seniors and studentsVisit www.vintagetheatre.com/red/ for more info.