Penfold Theatre’s production of Red is a major score; they have captured the Austin premiere of this John Logan play, a Tony award winner, first staged in London in 2009. Penfold treats the play very well, staging it on the thrust stage of the Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity St., downtown. Steven Pounders plays Mark Rothko, and Ryan Crowder, producing artistic director of Penfold, plays Ken, Rothko’s newly hired studio assistant. Rothko was known for his acerbic statements about the art world, and many of those comments have found their way into Logan’s script. Rothko was no Oscar Wilde for biting irony and sarcasm, but in his rage he came close.
The play claims great advantage in having only two characters, for it conveys a greater feeling of intimacy in its setting within Rothko’s lower Manhattan studio. Ken is a young painter seeking employment with the modernist master, Rothko. At first, he shows great humility at the master’s feet, but soon he is provoked beyond endurance by Rothko’s irascibility and begins to bite back. Thus he becomes Rothko’s foil, exactly what Rothko needed at that time. And the times were heady, but change was in the air. The time of the play was the peak of Rothko’s career, when he was painting his commission for murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in Manhattan. At the time, it was the most valuable art commission ever, paying $35,000. The commissioner was the architect Philip Johnson through his patron, international modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, perhaps the reigning art god of the twentieth century, who changed history more profoundly even than Picasso. The Pop artists such as Rauschenberg and Warhol were just beginning to gain popularity. Rothko saw the Pop movement as his nemesis, approaching to replace the abstract expressionists just as surely as his generation had replaced Cubism. This sense of doom hangs over the play and never lets up, but audiences find it inspiring. A treat, too, is that the expert actor/painters give the audience a peek into a working studio by actually painting a large canvas—red, of course.
Penfold Theatre and Director Nathan Jerkins are to be thanked for giving us this look into the sometimes-mysterious studios and lives of painters, especially the towering figure of Mark Rothko. They gain a credit, too, for placing the play in the Trinity Street Theatre, a very well-designed small theatre. It is located on the fourth floor of the First Baptist Church of Austin, downtown. The venue has an off-Broadway feel to it, and is a welcome addition to the Austin theatre community. Red runs until September 29 at the theatre.