John Logan’s play about the celebrated abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play. If Gamm’s production had been on Broadway, it should have received Tony’s for Best Director (Tony Estrella), Best Actor (Fred Sullivan Jr.) and Best Supporting Actor (Marc Dante Mancini).
Gamm’s interpretation of the 90-minute, one-act play is flawless and exciting. And it is both intellectual and emotional. We follow the relationship between the painter and his employee over a two-year period in the late ’50s.
The action takes place in a cluttered artist’s studio (great set by Michael McGarty), where Rothko is painting his signature works for The Four Seasons, the upscale NYC restaurant.
Enter Ken, a young art student who Rothko hires to assist him…and become the brunt of his explosive behavior. Rothko’s first words to the young man, as they stare at his abstract painting, are “What do you see?”
Ken’s response kicks off an hour and a half of emotional outbursts, relentless questioning and intellectual challenges, as Rothko goes from rage to reflection, pontification to passion, explaining his feelings and frustrations to the totally overwhelmed assistant.
Fred Sullivan Jr., a veteran Trinity actor in his first role at Gamm, is nothing short of brilliant. Marc Dante Mancini, whom Sullivan has directed in numerous plays at Gamm, is the perfect sparring partner. Each actor enhances the performance of the other.
Rothko is a conflicted character, ranting and raving about everything from his peers to his critics. He is an egotist with a capitol E, spouting out his Rothkoisms at every turn. Ken is obviously overwhelmed and intimidated by his employer (“I am not your friend. I am not your teacher. I am not your father. I am your employer.”).
Sullivan has taken the character of Rothko and made it his own, beginning with his physical appearance and body language. He shouts out his euphemisms, standing face to face with his charge, taking control of every moment.
We have seen Sullivan in dozens of roles, many of them comedic, but never have we seen such a demanding, always-in-control performance. To director Estrella and actor Sullivan’s credit, they have succeeded in allowing the younger Mancini to be Rothko’s conscience and take back some of the control as the play winds to its dramatic conclusion.
If at times the characters refer to a number of artists and their works and go off on intellectual spurts, don’t be intimidated. The emotion overwhelms the intellect, as you are swept up in it.
“There is only one thing I fear in life,” Rothko admits to Ken. “One day the black will swallow the red.”
After experiencing this marvelous play, you will understand what he means.
“Red” is at the Sandra Feinstein Theatre in Pawtucket through Dec. 16. If you want to see what great acting is all about, don’t miss this one. For reservations call 723-4266. Tickets are $36 and $45.