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Theater Review: Rothko is blazing red in a fervent, but accessible show

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It’s the first question of a job interview. It’s rhetorical. Or maybe the abstract expressionist, who has just secured a commission that is the modern-day equivalent of the ceiling job at the Sistine Chapel, really wants to hear your opinion.

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Mark Rothko is first seen in the glow from a cigarette lighter. The artist, played by Jody Kujawa, is studying one of his pieces, the one presumably propped against the fourth wall.

His studio space has wooden tables and a ladder. There is a shelf filled with jars and bottles and cans. Everything is stained with paint.

He inhales. He considers. He says to the young man next to him: “What do you see?”

Renegade Theater Company’s production of “Red” by John Logan and directed by Anika Thompson is a two-year slice in the life of the quick-tempered, systematic, opinionated capital-A artist at high-point in his career. It’s the late 1950s and Rothko has established himself as one of the elite. He’s been asked to provide a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City.

In the opening scene, he meets the young artist who will be his assistant. Ken, played by Paul LaNave, is slouched and nervous and dressed in a suit and tie. He responds to the artist’s question with an earnest answer: “Red.”

Ken’s job will be to fetch things such as coffee and Chinese food. He’ll mix paints, stretch canvases and build frames.

Mostly he will listen to Rothko’s opinions on Nietzsche within the context of Jackson Pollack versus Mark Rothko and learn about how Rothko’s generation of artists ended the Cubist movement.  

They will talk about artistic spaces and how natural lighting is just the worst.

LaNave plays the assistant — a fictional character — at first as hunched, shaky and eager to please. As the play progresses, he grows stronger in subtle ways. First he learns that he can contribute to the dialogue. Then he learns he can question the truths that Rothko spills in fully-formed colorful paragraphs.

Kujawa’s Rothko is a wild card who can take the simple word “red” and spit himself dizzy at his assistant’s audacity to dare respond to his question.

He’ll take that fury and wind it into a productive riff on what “red” actually means. He’s also got a touch of vulnerability and sounds like the parent of a high school grad when he says, “It’s a dangerous act, to throw a painting into the world.”

And when he’s seen practicing his name in conjunction with the likes of Rembrandt and Turner, he’s like the caricature of a bride-to-be scribbling her new last name on crisp stationery.

This is a talk-heavy play full of opinions on art and artists and art collectors and art museums and Andy Warhol.

It’s an accessible show, too, with quick dashes of humor.

Kujawa and LaNave have given their characters balance and energy. In a pivotal scene, the duo prime a large canvas. They take off with brushes flying within sprays of red paint. They split the space and cover the entire sheet in less than a minute in a scene that is exhilarating.

Both characters end huffing and Rothko lights a cigarette.

There is a bit of tacky humor in the play that hints at the artist’s future — or lack thereof. It’s darkly humorous, the equivalent of walking in on Sylvia Plath as she cleans her oven.

Go see it

What: Renegade Theater Company’s production of “Red” by John Logan, directed by Anika Thompson

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; Runs Thursday through Saturday through June 28

Where: Teatro Zuccone, 222 E. Superior St.

Tickets: $18 adults, $15 students and seniors at renegadetheatercompany.org

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