Theater isn’t the only art with a life of its own – at least not according to the character of Mark Rothko in John Logan’s "Red," playing now through Sept. 29 at the Trinity Street Theater and produced by Penfold Theatre Company.
A rumination on art, creativity, and commercialization, the award-winning "Red" is a must-see for even the most casual of art enthusiasts, and especially for any Rothko skeptics. The show offers a glimpse of both the artist’s studio and his philosophy. And for anyone (like myself) dubious about the painter’s colossal swatches of color, "Red" breathes the life of narrative into Rothko’s abstract expressionism.
Commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the late 1950s, Rothko struggles with the pressure of his own success and the fight for continued relevance as the generation of pop artists begins to encroach on his world.
Steven Pounders stars as the misanthropic and megalomaniacal Rothko, delivering a powerfully convincing performance. His diatribes against the commodification of art captivate even as they call attention to his own hypocrisy – at least, for the audience and his long-suffering assistant (Ryan Crowder). Rothko lives in a world of artistic ideals, largely failing to recognize the incongruities between his politics and practices.
Directed by Nathan Jerkins, the 90-minute show is intimate and intense, and Jerkins successfully maintains an energetic ebb and flow that keeps the tension from becoming overwrought or overwhelming.
As always, Penfold’s production team delivers grade-A quality work. David Utley’s meticulous set design drops us right into the world of the artist, and lighting designer Monty Taylor manages to somehow bring life and interest to a few moments of watching paint dry during a scene transition.
The intimate theatrical space nurtures the expressive silences that the show calls for, and Crowder’s performance is poignant and visually eloquent. The talented actor often conveys a range of emotions even without lines to deliver.
All of this is particularly impressive given the "talkiness" of the script. Based on a true story and largely composed of a series of philosophic musings on art, "Red" nevertheless holds our attention and provides a (new) appreciation for an important moment in art history.
And it might just inspire a road trip to Houston where one can sit and contemplate the life of color in Rothko’s famous chapel.
"Red" continues 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays through Sept 29. Tickets $18-$20. Trinity St. Theatre located inside the First Baptist Church of Austin, 901 Trinity Street. www.penfoldtheatre.org