Pop Tragedy: RED leaves a mark at Circuit Playhouse

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Rothko and (metaphoric) son.
  • Circuit Playhouse
  • Rothko and (metaphoric) son.

Let’s listen to some Ken Nordine while thinking about Circuit Playhouse’s excellent production of RED, a Tony Award-winning play about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, shall we? Why Nordine? I’ll get around to that. But I like the playful way he uses language to express the many moods of colors like magenta, maroon, burgundy, and black. Rothko would have hated it, and somehow that only seems appropriate.


Before each night’s performance the lights go down. Blackness swallows all the red in a way that the Rothko of playwright John Logan’s imagination says he fears like death. But the vanished colors return almost immediately, more vibrant than ever when the light comes up on Tony Isbell giving what may be the strongest performance of his acting career. There he is, front stage center: Rothko, the opinionated, self-infatuated brat painter whose work and ideas will be celebrated and challenged over the course of one vigorous act.

Isbell stares hard, and wordlessly into the audience, but he’s not looking at any person. He’s looking at something else. Or through something else. He adjusts his gaze and looks even harder.

“What do you see,” he asks at length, and so begins an hour-and-a-half of overly-familiar plot devices loosely stitched together in a way that is far more riveting and revealing than it has any right to be.

So what do we see when we watch this catfight between a famous historical figure and a fictional assistent created for no reason other than to give the famous guy somebody to argue with? Are we dupes caught up in a hackneyed play where characters speak in ridiculous monologues, sometimes revealing dark, difficult secrets? Or is this rollicking hero’s journey that moves from one patricide to the next with less subtlety than a Doors song? Could it be a smug middlebrow romp where culturally significant brand names like Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Jung, and Freud aren’t so much dropped as slung around like fertilizer? Or a soap opera where drama-prone characters fret and fight like they’d been cut out of a Roy Lichtenstein painting?

Yes to all of that, and all for the best.

RED , a study in conflict, contrast, and irony opens a window onto Rothko’s world after the artist has been offered $35,000 — a vast sum at the time — to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons, a fancy New York restaurant opening in the Segrams Building, an international style skyscraper designed by Mies van der Rohe. Now the uncompromising artist who criticized Picasso’s “ugly pots,” is forced to confront the commodification of his own work at a time when Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg are threatening to make even his interior monologue obsolete.

Tony Isbell ad Mark Rothko
  • Tony Isbell ad Mark Rothko
It’s not easy to talk seriously about seriousness or to keep a straight face while saying lofty things about the importance of paintings with tragedy infused into every brush stroke. But the more Isbell’s Rothko talks— and boy does he talk— the more obvious all the little tragedies become. And somehow all of this cartoonishness and cliche leaves us with the impression that we’ve experienced something rich, real, and rewarding.

This is pop art for playgoers. The great Rothko condemned to live forever inside a commodified Hell: Black swallows red, red swallows black, and so on.

Christopher Joel Onken delivers a nice, understated performance as Ken, a younger artist hired to make coffee and prime canvases. He is especially good in a scene where he and Isbell brainstorm together attempting to take the idea of red and break it down into dozens of more specific colors with a variety of even more specific emotionally-charged descriptors. For what it’s worth, this nearly musical passage is what reminded me of Ken Nordine, who launched his own unusual recording career in the late 1950’s at just about the time Rothko would have been working on the Four Seasons project.

I’ve seen several superb productions of plays over the past year: Hurt Village, Angels in America, A Steady Rain, and Time Stands Still all leap immediately to mind. As insubstantial as it might seem going down, RED, directed by Brian Fruits, is as satisfying as any of them and Isbell’s performance as Rothko is not to be missed.

Time and ticket information, HERE.

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