Someone says “sizzling” and you half expect porn. Hear “thrilling” and you think of cliffhanger action.
But, when they’re modified by “intellectually,” you’re in for an evening of theater powerful enough to sweep all the drama awards just two seasons ago. More than one reviewer saw Red, the story of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko as he battles for his artistic soul with a devil of a big commission, and found it sizzling and intellectually thrilling.
Add “intense and exciting two-character bio-drama” and you still have only a hint at what opens this weekend at the Blue Barn. Equity actor Jerry Longe, best-known as Ebenezer Scrooge, and UNO grad Brendan Reilly play Rothko and his assistant Ken, a brash young man who forces the artist to agonize over whether he’s selling out.
What is often a socratic dialogue between teacher and student takes place in the artist’s studio on 53rd Street in New York’s Bowery in 1958-59. Their words aren’t heard in a vacuum, but amidst the hard work of mixing paint, stretching frames, pulling canvas and priming a seven-by-seven canvas with soaring music playing.
Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne introduced the John Logan play in London, with high praise for Molina’s Rothko and an Olivier award for Redmayne as the assistant. In New York, the 90-minute one-act play swept six Tonys and the top Drama Deck honor.
And it brings director Susan Clement Toberer together again with Longe, her leading player most recently as Barry Champlain in Talk Radio and Sir in The Dresser. Omaha credits for Longe go back to the Nebraska Theatre Caravan when he even played Strider the horse in a Tolstoy adaptation.
It would seem impossible to play Rothko without wrestling over the purity of art versus the pull of commercialism. Or, in a more erudite dichotomy, Apollonian v. Dionysian. The more grandiose and comforting v. truth-seeking.
Longe doesn’t agonize over acting jobs. He enjoys the gratification of stage artistry, and it’s all the better that he’s getting paid. “I don’t know how many years I’ve spent doing the job. Sometimes I like it, sometimes not, but I always do my job.” This time, much like his appearances in the Omaha Community Playhouse A Christmas Carol, weeks of rehearsal and many performances allow an approach to perfection.
It’s not so attainable for Rothko, whose struggles saddle Longe “with words I’ve never used or heard before. I was reading the script with a dictionary.”
Rothko and young Ken discuss philosophy, mythology, archaeology. “It’s our challenge to make everybody understand what they’re talking about.”
To start with the title’s three-letter word, Red, don’t pluralize and put the Russian-born Rothko into a political box. No dictionary is needed to look up the color, but it helps to Google some of his untitled paintings (don’t expect the artist to lead you around with titles) and see his use of red, along with maroon, brown and black in his later work.
“The only thing I fear in life, my friend,” Rothko said. “One day the black will swallow the red.” He also explains, “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. Flat forms destroy illusion and reveal truth.”
If you didn’t stop reading to check out Rothko’s art, you may recall it simply in terms of colors and shapes. But you won’t get off that easy if you identify with Reilly’s Ken while watching the play.
It opens with Rothko, back to audience, gazing at a painting and asking, “What do you see?” Don’t answer. He doesn’t let Ken respond, but tells him to “let it work on you, wrap its arms around you.”
The play’s director explains that the artist insists that his paintings “deserve our compassion. The viewer needs to be kind. His work lives and dies in the eyes of the sensitive viewer,” according to Toberer. Strict licensing rules govern Rothko's unfinished work that must be presented indirectly to the audience.
Does she live the age-old battle between the purity of art and the practical need to fill theater seats? “I will say that this play, like I told Jerry and Brendan, re-inspired that artist side of myself. I can only hope to be the artist that Rothko is.”
She has had the advantage of being artistic director of a progressive, intimate theater that has survived into its 24th season with a mission to “provoke emotions, actions, change.” And that’s a promise she expects to keep as the Blue Barn plans a fund-raising campaign to build its new theater at 10th and Pacific by 2014.
Toberer doesn’t want to talk any more about building plans than she did last April when reporting the gift of land once occupied by Angie’s and other steakhouses, and the hiring of distinguished theater designers. She emphasized maintaining the essence of the Barn’s Old Market space, citing the intimacy of the low ceiling, and the lobby entry that aids social connection.
“We’ll bring a lot of things that are iconically Blue Barn: house chairs, coffee bar, metal and wood sculptures. We won’t have pipes leaking.”
And permit a longtime fan of her plays to sigh with relief and say: EASIER PARKING. Yes, she agrees, “Sure, you’ll have parking.”
Not that a search for a stall would keep any serious theater-goer from seeing Red. Even the basic concept is irresistible as Rothko accepts a $35,000 commission (think millions in 2012 dollars) to paint murals for the new Seagram Building’s exclusive Four Seasons restaurant. Will Ken convince him he has sold out? Will he, as one critic suggests, take the “rare chance to make superficial suits choke on their expensive food without really knowing why?”
Imagine this artist' who resists even the abstract expressionist label and uses colors, numbers or “untitled” to avoid leading the viewer, facing such questions as he tries to translate tragic ideas of Nietzsche and Aeschylus to a flat canvas. Consider that he claims “Silence is so accurate,” and that words only paralyze the viewer’s imagination.
Then you begin to see why more than one reviewer suggested that no prior play had so successfully captured the dynamic relationship between an artist and his creation. It’s fair to speculate that playwright John Logan has faced art v. commerce questions as he penned movie scripts for such films as Gladiator and The Aviator.
We’ll see Brendan Reilly, impressive in smaller roles at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and elsewhere, tackling a character that carries a large share of this intellectually thrilling burden.
And we’ll see the veteran Longe, “My head shaved, a cueball with glasses,” playing a man he calls “a dynamo, a sledgehammer, a hurricane.”
An artist, Longe warns, “who doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and everybody’s a fool. If it were a one-man show, he’d have all the thoughts.” But instead he has the young assistant and the dialogue of teacher-student, employer-employee and father-son.
Red runs Sept. 27-Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays except the first and last with Oct. 14 sold-out, at the Blue Barn in the Old Market. Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. Call 402.345.1576 or visit bluebarn.org.