Philadelphia Theatre Company’ production of John Logan’s RED

by Samantha Lazar

There could not be a better space for a production of John Logan’s RED than the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts. By some stroke of happenstance the theatre seems tailor-made for the play: its walls are clad in a thick armor of undulating rust-red panels that, depending on what’s on stage, can project neutrality, sleekness, bloody panic (imagine a production of Wozzeck here), or, in this case, the feeling of being completely surrounded by – if not trapped inside – a Rothko canvas.

Inside the Suzanne Roberts Theatre

Walking into the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, taking a seat, and soaking up the surroundings is the perfect way to set the stage for what is about to unfold. The stage itself is also ideally suited for the play, with its soaring fly space providing a fitting facsimile of the former gymnasium in the Bowery that Rothko used as a studio during the years in which the play is set.

As a dramaturg with a special interest in visual dramaturgy and a sometime set designer, I always pay close attention to the entire environment of a production, whether it’s housed in an abandoned warehouse, a clearing in the woods, or, in this case, a 365-seat state-of-the-art traditional proscenium theater with 2,000 square feet of stage space. With all theatre, the pre-show surroundings are an audience’s first taste of what’s to come, and it’s exciting when the atmosphere does more than simply offer up a place to sit.

Working intensely on a show is often an all-consuming experience, and never more so than during tech week, when it can feel like the whole cast and crew is living in the world of the play. This particular work lends itself to that experience: the play is about Mark Rothko, specifically during the two years that he worked on one particular commission. Rothko’s stated intent with the canvasses of his late period, and specifically with this project, was to create a feeling that enveloped the viewer. (This might seem warm and comforting until one learns that the intended feeling is one of claustrophobia, fear, despair, and tragedy. But that’s neither here nor there.) In short, working on this production felt very much like living in Rothko’s universe, which is exactly what the famously curmudgeonly artist would have wanted.

Part of the work I did on the show included research into how Rothko wanted his paintings to be viewed, and where the commissioned Seagram Murals actually wound up after his death. After the paintings sat in storage for over a decade, Rothko negotiated a deal with London’s Tate Gallery, which accepted his conditional gift of nine canvasses. Characteristically, Rothko was exacting and particular about how the paintings were to be displayed and the donation came with the stipulation that they were to hang in their own gray-walled, dimly lit room. The goal was the creation of an imposing atmosphere that dominated the viewer’s senses and forced an uncomfortable engagement with the work.

Although Rothko never saw the installation – his suicide was discovered on the very day that the paintings arrived at the museum – the Tate’s dedicated room was the fulfillment of a dream. As the artist discloses to his assistant Ken in the two-man play,

“All my life I wanted just this, my friend: to create a place… A place where the viewer could live in contemplation with the work…”

The dream was further realized the following year, when the Rothko Chapel was completed in Houston, Texas, and again in 1990 when the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art in Japan created a Rothko room of its own modeled on the Tate’s.

So, creating a place was essential to Rothko and if that same goal is not paramount for a production team that is staging RED, something substantial will be lost. Even without this element the play is a heady one, full of passion, intellectual ideas, pathos, and complex relationships. But this work lends itself to a visual treatment in a way that few traditional plays do. A production of RED is made all the more powerful if it can create at least a little bit of what Rothko himself hoped to attain with his paintings and the spaces he wanted them to inhabit. I think of visual dramaturgy as more concerned with the interplay of set, lights, and environment – how the technical elements make you feel, and how they work with the script – than with textual details and actors’ performances. When there is an additional, tangible element to a production that goes beyond the action on stage and forcibly inserts the audience into the experience, something thrilling is achieved. That participatory experience is what I love most about theatre.

© Samantha Lazar (October 23, 2011)

RED, by John Logan; directed by Anders Cato, set by James Noone, costumes by Alejo Vietti, lighting by Tyler Micoleau, compositions/sound design by Josh Schmidt. At Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19146 (215) 985-0420. www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org October 14 – November 13, 2011. 

FEATURING: Stephen Rowe and Haley Joel Osment

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