Engrossing and compelling, John Logan's Red-which features a pair of tour-de-force performances from Ronnie Meek and Justin Boccitto under the focused and sure-handed direction of Mike Fernandez-is an altogether impressive third season opener for Nashville's Blackbird Theatre, the company that has firmly established itself as one of the region's most ambitious and most confident purveyors of quality theatricality.
Logan's exquisitely written treatise on art and the people who create it, brought so refreshingly and unabashedly to life in Blackbird's beautifully designed production, offers the engrossing tale of the renowned abstract expressionist painter Rothko (who, no doubt, would bridle at such a characterization of his life's work) and his fictional assistant Ken. Logan's script follows the pair through a two-year relationship that is both edifying and enlightening as it shows us the sometimes funny and poignant, oftentimes tumultuous and circuitous journey toward a shared goal of making art for the ages.
Clearly, Red represents Logan's own creative journey as he considers the story of Rothko and his legendary 1958 commission to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant, located inside New York City's gleaming new skyscraper-The Seagram's Building, designed by architects Philip Johnson and Mies Van Der Rohe-and his subsequent decision to return the commission and to lock the murals away from the prying eyes of the public and the critical rejoinders of the international art community. Since Rothko never explained his decision publicly and, in fact, kept the murals in storage until 1968, Logan is given the artistic license to create a story in which he can ponder what might have been, using what actually is known about Rothko as the basis of his intellectual construct. The result is a fascinating one-act play that delivers on a variety of levels, not the least of which is its central theme of what motivates an artist to create and the thought processes that inform everything he does.
Director Mike Fernandez has a clear and concise view for the play, allowing for the magnificent use of theatrical design and technical wizardry to help his two actors to tell the story, which propels the play on its way. Never for a moment during the 90-minutes plus of Red does your mind wander-thanks to the intense performances onstage and the elegiac and near poetic language employed by the playwright-or your imagination lack for sustenance. Clearly, Blackbird Theatre's Red is one of the year's best, most electrifying nights of theater Nashville audiences have had the pleasure of witnessing.
Fernandez gives his actors rein to fully realize their characters and to deliver stunning performances that are completely believable while somehow managing to be palpably larger-than-life in the very same way that Rothko himself was viewed during his heyday.
Ronnie Meek gives an extraordinary performance as Rothko, affecting a Russian-tinged accent that fits his character perfectly and which he is able to maintain beautifully from start to finish. As he rails against the pedestrian and prosaic tastes of the general public and rages against the ever-changing tides of popular culture and the homogenized artistic tastes of the proletariat, Meek captures the artist's haughty disdain perfectly. With a genuine sense of who Rothko is, Meek is engrossing, offering a master class in dramatic technique for his audience while never for a moment appearing to be too stagey or phony in doing so. With his round-framed eyeglasses and slight middle-age paunch, Meek looks for all the world like Rothko's very doppelganger, showcasing his chameleon-like quality as an actor.
As Ken, the fictional character created by Logan to provide the audience access to the inner workings of the artist's psyche, Justin Boccitto makes his Nashville stage debut (heretofore, he's been represented as a director and choreographer thanks to his award-winning efforts in Lipscomb University Theatre's production of Hairspray last season) with extraordinary results. In the play's early going, Boccitto plays Ken with a sense of deference and naivete, his wide-eyed wonder representing the outsider's view of this new world in which he finds himself, providing us with entre into Rothko's rarefied space. Gradually, however, as the play progresses and Rothko and Ken become more interdependent upon each other, Boccitto effectively captures the growing familiarity of his character with an easy grace and unfettered sense of drama.