Theater review: ‘Red’ at 35below

SIMPLY RED: Alex Daly, left, and John Hall star in 'Red,' an intense drama about painter Mark Rothko.
SIMPLY RED: Alex Daly, left, and John Hall star in 'Red,' an intense drama about painter Mark Rothko. Photo courtesy of Mockingbird Theatre Productions

The 35below space is re-envisioned as an artist studio with a clutter of frames, paints and brushes. A large white canvas hangs on the back wall, while art, philosophy, psychology and humanity unfold in in John Logan’s play Red, presented by the Asheville-based collective Mockingbird Theatre Productions. The show runs through Sunday, Nov. 19.

Painter Mark Rothko was primarily known for his abstract expressionist paintings of solid-color rectangles. He also possessed the self-loathing nature of many tortured artists. The play finds Rothko in the late 1950s, when pop and commercial artists are replacing painters of his ilk. He feels contempt for the trends that threaten to invalidate his work.

At this phase in his career, Rothko believes that color is merely an instrument that informs emotion. As he ages, Rothko feels the same pressures that, a generation earlier, he proudly imposed on the likes of Picasso. He brags of having helped destroy the cubist movement. But now, Rothko has taken a commission from Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc., for a restaurant in a new Four Seasons hotel in New York. It represents everything he has grown to hate in commercialized art.

Longtime Asheville-based actor John Hall inhabits Rothko with ease. He pivots from egomaniacal to fearful and angry among a world of change he cannot tolerate.

Sharing the stage with Hall is Alex Day, as Ken, a young painter who has been hired to work as Rothko’s assistant. Ken wants to look up to and admire Rothko but, instead, finds himself questioning and challenging the artist in ways that expose the hidden truths and fears of both men. Day is every bit Hall’s equal in this tightly coiled duel of ambition, integrity, ideals and passions.

Rothko fears that black will overtake the red, as a metaphor for his fading relevance. Ken reveals that he is haunted by the color white, which reminds him of the snow outside the window of the room where his parents were brutally murdered. These two men could not be more opposite, but both are grasping for emotional connection. The struggle of opposites rages around discussions of art (and the artist’s power to elicit feelings and interpretations through it), Nietzsche and personal hardships. This is heady and riveting stuff, and the two sharp actors slice at each other with razor-edged passions.

At one point, Hall and Day cover the canvas, in silence, with red paint, kindling myriad emotions as the color red floods the blank space. Without words, audience members are transported into the hue and left to find their own inner connections to the evocative moment transpiring before them.

WHAT: Red by Mockingbird Theatre Productions
WHERE: 35below, 35 Walnut St., ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Nov. 19. Fridays and Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, at 2:30 p.m. $15

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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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