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Theater Review: 'Red' At The Mark Taper Forum

Katie Buenneke |
August 16, 2012 | 9:55 a.m. PDT

Theater Editor

Jonathan Groff and Alfred Molina star in "Red," a charged play about art. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Jonathan Groff and Alfred Molina star in "Red," a charged play about art. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
A play about modern art. Sounds stuffy, boring, and generally incomprehensible, right? Wrong! Somehow, "Red," playing at the Mark Taper Forum through September 9, is a surprisingly inclusive, informative, and entertaining play.

The play follows abstract painter Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina, who was nominated for a Tony for this role) and his employee, Ken (Jonathan Groff, "Glee," "Spring Awakening"), an aspiring painter. Playwright John Logan deftly draws a rich world for these two, full of simultaneous opposition and symbiosis. Rothko is a terse personality, while Ken is mostly subservient to the master painter—though he's known to burst out at times, creating an intricate balance of quiet and conflict.

Logan has written a cerebral play, there's no doubt about it. Yet somehow, despite the high-brow subject matter and grandiose vocabulary, "Red" creates a sense of familiarity with the audience within the first few minutes—even if they know little to nothing about modern art, or of Rothko or his work. Part of this is due to Molina's delightfully forceful performance as Rothko, who, like one of his paintings, is both welcoming and terrifying at the same time. Credit is also due to Groff, whose naive, yet astute Ken is a wonderfully complex creature.

Director Michael Grandage also does a good job with the play (a transfer from London's Donmar Warehouse, via Broadway), creating an striking world of juxtaposition. Everything about the play is meticulously done, from Christopher Oram's scenic and costume design to Neil Austen's lighting design to Adam Cork's compositions and sound design to the impeccably choreographed "dance" of Rothko and Ken prepping a canvas. It's clear that Grandage has taken great care in bringing Logan's play to the stage.

The play itself is, like Rothko, an aggravating creature. Oftentimes, Rothko comes off as preachy, and so does the play. On the other hand, Ken can be overly sentimental occasionally, a statement that is also true of the play. But as Ken points out, there can be a kind of beauty in flaws and contradictions, and "Red" shows that in spades. More importantly, though, "Red" is a deeply reflective play, sure to prompt many discussions about what art is, and what each individual's duty is to it. Art (be it visual or performed) is a form that seems to perennially be on the precipice of dying, only to be miraculously saved. "Red" conveys this quite well, and one can only hope that it will inspire more patrons of the arts.

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