Saturday, September 6, 2014

Red an Intriguing Mix of Heady and Visceral

Jim Van Valen and Christopher Peltier
By James E. Trainor III
Photo By Bob Goodfellow

Iowa City - Upon walking into Riverside during its current production of John Logan's Red, one is first struck by how the stage looks like a working art studio (set design by Kevin Dudley). Strike that: it is a working art studio. During the course of the one-act play, the actors have a lot of stage business centered around painting: mixing paint, putting together canvases, priming, cleaning. I mention this because Red is a lofty play, full of big ideas, and it would be easy to get lost in the cerebral realm of talking about art. So much the better that the actors have this great set to play with, so they can get their hands dirty with the messy, gut-wrenching business of making art.

Red tells the story of the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (Jim Van Valen) and his young assistant Ken (Christopher Peltier). Rothko is at the height of his fame, but he is losing patience with the commercial art world; the action of the plot has him struggling to create a mural for the newly-build Four Seasons restaurant. Van Valen's Rothko is soulful and intriguing; he really transforms into this man who, though a giant in his own time, was more and more an artifact in the swiftly-changing New York of the late 1950's. Van Valen's passion and nuance as Rothko comes to realize his time has passed is part of what makes this piece so effective.

Ken is hired as Rothko's assistant. The irascible Rothko insists he isn't an art teacher or a father figure, but that's exactly what he becomes. In his emphatic rants, he tells Ken how artists must always search for truth, and must be willing to ruthlessly challenge what came before. Trouble is, the Pop Art movement is keen on taking down the Abstract Expressionists, just as the Abstract Expressionists humiliated and obviated the Cubists and the Surrealists. Ken, though he hardly has the courage to say it, is aligned with the Pop Art movement, and as both men are fiercely committed to their aesthetics, it becomes a struggle about more than art -- it's about personal identity, dominance, and, in the end, fragility and mortality.

Peltier plays the status shifts in the piece very well. He begins the play cowed, intimidated, watching every step, eager to please and afraid to anger. He soaks in all of Rothko's well rehearsed rants (Peltier is a great scene partner because he's an excellent listener). But when the tables are turned, he takes the stage and we see Rothko deflated. We see the dignity and passion of a young artist engaged in something totally new. Peltier plays the part with humor and pathos, and it's fun to watch him create this character.

Sam Osheroff's direction guides the actors through this fast-paced two-hander. Van Valen and Peltier are both engaged fully in this world and in this story, and Osheroff must be as well, because his ear for text is very strong. The music of the words flows through the piece, and it is a pleasure to drink in. He also uses the space very well. One moment in particular was very absorbing: Rothko and Ken, continuing their ongoing conversation about art and philosophy, build and hang a canvas to be primed. Solemnly they stop talking, put on a record, and swiftly and energetically paint the thing. It's exciting to watch, and it adds a lot to the verisimilitude of the staging, as we have a visual reminder how a fresh coat of paint, over time, will dry and become sterile and fixed, just like an artist's inspiration. Osheroff pays attention to both the structure and the thematic weight of Red, and it pays off.

Red plays through September 28 at Riverside Theatre, 213 N Gilbert St. More information here.

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