"What do you see?"
So simple a question … yet so difficult an answer.
What do you see when you look at a piece of art? Color? Structure? Deeper meaning?
What do you see when you look behind the eyes of another person? Wisdom? Experience? A defining moment?
That singular question is central to John Logan's RED, currently running at Cleveland Play House's Allen Theatre. The play centers on abstract artist Mark Rothko and his assistant, Ken, working to create several large mural paintings – a lucrative commission from the Four Seasons restaurant. Rothko sees the project as his defining moment, an opportunity to create conversation and pull people's attention from their dinner. Ken challenges Rothko's vision, essentially saying the project is Rothko's way of "selling out" and conforming to someone else's ideas. While arguing is a mainstay of their relationship, the men ultimately help each other confront their flaws with a bit of soul-searching in between the yelling.
Bob Ari is the quintessential Rothko. Arrogant, philosophical, experienced. The journey he takes the audience on is wonderful. He challenges not only Ken, but those sitting in the dark of the theatre to think about what art is and how it can affect someone viewing it and someone creating it. Ari's portrayal is of a strong man, a passionate man, but a man that, through conversations with his assistant, starts to fall deeper into his anxieties and second-guess himself more and more.
Randy Harrison plays Ken, the young, idealistic artist that signs on to be Rothko's right-hand man. At first, Ken sees Rothko as a hero, someone he hopes to gain insight into the art world from. As the play moves forward though, Harrison turns Ken into a young man standing up to the man he idolizes. He no longer wants to be only the lowly assistant running errands and stretching canvases. He wants Rothko to acknowledge him as a person, to learn something about him. Ken battles his own demons of the past and when Harrison finally gets to bring those demons to light, it's with heartbreaking sincerity.
Director Anders Cato succeeds with his vision. RED is a play that, because of the many arguments and battles between Rothko and Ken, could reach its high point too soon and have nowhere to go after that. This production doesn't suffer from that fate. Emotions spike and settle back down. The actors are always natural, with their performances never seeming forced.
Lee Savage and Dan Kotlowitz combine their scenic design and lighting design to work hand-in-hand. The cluttered art studio set is functional and versatile. Canvases and supplies seamlessly move between scenes, changing the dynamics of the space with minimal effort. The low-level lighting plays to Rothko's preferences but isn't so low to hinder the audiences' viewing of the action on stage.
What do you see when you see RED at Cleveland Play House? You see a strong, layered production of a thought-provoking play.
RED continues its run at the Allen Theatre through April 8th. Evening performances are Tuesday to Saturday with matinee performances on weekends. Pre-show conversations led by Cleveland Play House staff are available 45 minutes before each performance to give patrons some additional insight into the production. Post-show discussions with the cast and creative team are scheduled for Sunday 3/25, Tuesday 3/27 and Sunday 4/1.
Tickets range from $49 to $69. Purchase tickets online at www.clevelandplayhouse.com or through The PlayhouseSquare box office at 216.241.6000. The Allen Theatre is located at 1407 Euclid Avenue, the new home of the Cleveland Play House.
Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson