Paintings; they live and dies in the eye of the viewer. The same can be said for a performance. The life which a performance gives only continues to live if the viewer is satisfied in what they see. The same goes for the painting; if it is left alone and no one sees it, no light is shed upon it, does it still seem as wondrous and magnificent as when the artist created it? The story of Mark Rothko and his commissioned work: The Seagram Murals, comes to the stage as the Jewish Theatre Workshop presents Red, a play by John Logan. Directed by Ariella McCown, this production essentially becomes a portrait of its own, depicting the artistic ambition and vulnerability of Rothko as he attempts to create his career defining work for an extraordinary setting.
Scenic Designers Amalia Kotlicky and Brad Norris expose the raw chaotic creativity of the artist’s mind in their set design. With mural paintings lining the front lip of the stage, complete with drop cloth and paint splatter, to the clustered and crowded painter’s studio, Kotlicky and Norris develop a sense of creative frustration exploded into actuality. Having the larger murals flanking the set on either side as well as plastered across the back of the stage highlights the ‘finished product’ Rothko’s work is meant to represent.
Director Ariella McCown works diligently with her two performers to really hone in on the reality of the play. The unfortunate disruptive element comes during lengthy scene changes; particularly between scenes two and three and again between scenes three and four. Leaving the audience in undistracted darkness for lengthy periods of time causes a drop in the momentum that the play was previously building. It is worth noting her homage to the original Broadway production; despite having the larger than life murals present on the stage, McCown directs both actors to stare out into the audience when evaluating Rothko’s work, especially whenever Rothko asks Ken, ‘What do you see?’
The performance as a whole is mismatched in talent. Rodney Bonds playing the play’s driving force of Mark Rothko falls short frequently on both emotional delivery and overall presence of the moment. The play is carried to a fruitful success, however, by Ken (Brian M. Kehoe). Exuding stellar talent and physical stage presence, Kehoe manages to deliver stunning emotional scenes that are grounded in reality and raw expressive feeling.
To Bonds’ credit he does have moments where he settles into the character in a believable fashion. The ‘fine’ speech in Scene III is the most convincing moment of his performance and the only show that he makes of connecting with the character. There are moments that lead up to and follow this speech that are populated with loud garish outbursts of one-dimensional anger that truly lack emotional depth and understanding. The big moment of payoff— the frantic moment when he finally paints the canvas— never arrives for Bonds’ character because the whole effort drags on and when he turns around the man has not a single drop of paint on him. On top of all this, Bonds stumbles through lines and often places pauses where they feel awkward, further stifling his dialogue. It was unfortunately very disappointing to see this character done so little justice.
Carrying the show on his shoulders, Brian M. Kehoe makes up for what Bonds lacks in every scene. He is fully committed and completely aware and present in each moment, as opposed to being aloof and allowing his mind to wander elsewhere. The agonizing reminiscent moment where Kehoe’s character relives his tragic past radiates out to the audience through his tortured facial expressions, letting us experience it with him. Kehoe develops the character with a strong purpose, forever needling at Rothko in a juvenile fashion that gives the audience a keen insight to their relationship.
There are moments of sheer physical exertion that Kehoe displays impeccably; the top of scene three where he becomes task-driven with the staple gun coming to mind. Every ounce of emotion and raw feeling is driven into the gestures of ramming staples into the canvas and without Kehoe’s character ever having to speak a word you feel exactly what he’s going through. When he does speak, he delivers his monologues with a vehement passion; explosively exploring many levels of emotion in varying volumes and tonalities of his voice. The “red” speech is delivered with a furious intensity; a scorned passion that just leaps out of him dying to escape from somewhere deep inside. Kehoe is a masterful talent that truly understands the work as well as his character. His final word to Rothko is delivered with such commitment and such a tenacity that it seals the play as a success regardless of all else that’s happened.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Red plays a limited run of 5 performances through June 23, 2013 at the Straus Auditorium at the Weinberg Jewish Community Center – 5700 Park Heights Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. Reserve your tickets by calling the box office at (410) 709-8589, or purchase them at the door.