Seeing ‘Red’ at the Unicorn

I remember going to an art gallery as a kid and looking at a painting by Mark Rothko. It was just three rectangles with black borders. I could tell by the way it was displayed that this was an Important Work. But I was underwhelmed. I figured I could do something like that, and didn’t understand why it was so special. Color me unimpressed.
A few years later I heard about Rothko’s Four Seasons scandal – he had been hired to paint murals for the famous New York restaurant, but he had such disdain for the type of people that go to such places that he stopped working on them and gave back the money. I thought that was weird, but since I didn’t like his paintings anyway, I didn’t really care.
And then came the 2010 Tony Award winner Red, which is about Mark Rothko, and which is the season opener at the Unicorn Theater, running through Oct. 2.
Color me impressed.
Taking place during the period in which Rothko was painting the Four Seasons murals, Red is a two-person, one-room show. Rothko has hired a new young apprentice, Ken, to help him do the grunt work of painting. During their days together, Ken absorbs Rothko’s philosophies and complaints. Along the way, we learn why Rothko chose to paint the things he did, and what they meant to him.
One of the brilliant things about the play is that once you understand Rothko’s perspective on his own art, you realize that the play itself is constructed in the manner of a Rothko painting. The boundaries of the play are conversations, tightly constructed and self-referential, like intellectual origami. But in between those conversations are intervals with no dialogue, just activity, facial expressions, that force the viewer to shift perspectives and watch the movement. Indeed, the most emotionally overwhelming point of the play is completely wordless – it involves the two men painting a canvas to the accompaniment of Mozart’s “Kyrie.” The two characters each approach the task in their own way; it crystallizes the whole point of the play. It brought me to tears -- and I’m not even sure why.
Jim Birdsall plays Mark Rothko, and he gives some real depth and nuance to this historical character. His gruff and cynical exterior is a brittle shell to a very sensitive and sad core. He projects his insecurities on his young protégé, and Birdsall’s performance allows the audience to see all the layers at once.
Sam Cordes plays Ken. He’s one of the very best actors today, and I’m always happy to see him in another show. A significant part of this role requires him to react to Rothko’s speeches and rants and art without speaking. Cordes is a master at nonverbal expressions; you can almost hear his thoughts during the play. I can’t think of any other actor that should have been cast in this role.
Red is an enthralling play that resonates both intellectually and emotionally. Don’t be put off by the vague and non-descript title; after watching this play you realize that no other title would have been appropriate.
The Unicorn has started its new season off with a brilliant and compelling show. If this is any indication of the rest of the season, you need to get your season tickets now.

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