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Forward Theater Company's Red is a tightly focused production about art, age and self-absorption
Red: Jim DeVita portrays a brilliant but self-absorbed artist.
Credit:Ross Zentner

While artists can be notoriously temperamental -- at least in the popular imagination -- the Mark Rothko in John Logan's 2010 Tony winner, Red, could win a prize for it. Self-righteous, rabidly opinionated and obsessed with what place he will occupy in art history, Rothko paces around his New York studio like a tiger in a too-small pen at the zoo. This latest production by Forward Theater Company (through Feb. 2 in Overture Center's Playhouse) examines the artist's creative process and the difficulty of reconciling one's principles with art-world commerce.

We first meet the famed abstract artist in 1958, after he's agreed to paint a series of works for the Four Seasons Restaurant. The commission will bring in serious money, but Rothko (played by American Players Theatre favorite Jim DeVita) fumes that his work will wind up among rich, thoughtless people who won't appreciate it. He vents these feelings -- as well as his thoughts on art in general -- to his fictionalized assistant, Ken (Nate Burger).

Red is a tightly focused play: just two actors, one setting, and 90 minutes with no intermission. Its tension exists entirely in the verbal back-and-forth between the older artist (when the play opens, Rothko is 55) and the young assistant who mixes paint and stretches canvases.

That narrow focus is ultimately Red's greatest limitation. Much like the young assistant, I began to feel worn down by Rothko's constant pontificating. Brilliant though he may be, Rothko comes across as humorless and staggeringly uninterested in anything but himself and his work. Later in the play, when the assistant -- until then, an obedient cipher -- blows up at Rothko, it's liberating for the audience as well. He voices thoughts that many of us surely have been thinking.

Forward's production is directed by Milwaukee-based actor and director Laura Gordon, whom audiences may remember for her exceptional performance in Forward's Good People last spring. Gordon strives to keep Red from feeling static, but, despite Rothko's pacing, there is a sense of claustrophobia at times. (That may be intentional; Rothko shunned natural light, and it's clear he's living inside his own head.)

For theatergoers used to seeing DeVita in Shakespeare at American Players Theatre, it's a welcome chance to watch him tackle a more contemporary role. He captures Rothko's intensity and rigidity. In contrast, Burger as the assistant seems remarkably easygoing and passive, so it's all the more gratifying when he stands up for himself. Set designer Charles J. Trieloff II deserves kudos for his handsome re-creation of Rothko's Bowery studio.

While Red poses good questions about the intersection of art and commerce, Rothko was certainly not the only artist to bristle at a commission. And though the play gives us a window into a time when abstract expressionism began to give way to the rising tide of Pop, it also lays on the foreshadowing of Rothko's 1970 suicide too thickly. More problematically, Logan's Rothko speaks in perfectly formed Deep Thoughts. While Rothko was no doubt a ferociously intelligent and difficult person in real life, Red's need to have him at full-throttle intensity at all times paradoxically blunts its impact.

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