Robert May (left) and Luke Monday in "Red." Photo by Ken Jacques
Artistic temperament, thy name is Rothko. That’s Mark Rothko, the fiery abstract expressionist who is the alpha dog in John Logan’s brilliant Tony Award-winning play Red. Subject to all his pontifications, tantrums, insecurities and verbal abuse is a new young assistant named Ken, an aspiring artist who at the outset is eager to learn from a downright ornery and dismissive master with no intention of playing mentor. The tension of this relationship and what each man ultimately learns from the other coalesces in a cerebral but urgent 90 minutes.
Four years after Red was last seen locally, in a dynamic production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, a worthy staging of its own is happening at the Brooks Theater in downtown Oceanside. Directing for the Oceanside Theatre Company is Kevin Hafso-Koppman. His actors are Robert May as Rothko and Luke Monday as Ken. Both are more than up to the challenge of Logan’s biting and articulate script.
The action takes place in Rothko’s studio, circa 1950s, in New York’s Bowery, in a converted gymnasium where no natural light is admitted because the great artist can’t control such light. He soon discovers that he can’t control his assistant either, who challenges Rothko’s arrogance and pretentiousness with the simple question “Do you have to keep telling people what art is?” before really unloading on the egoist later (of course, to little avail). The quietly intense Monday credibly conveys Ken’s transformation. May’s Rothko is less unhinged than that of John Vickery in the San Diego Rep’s Red, but he’s just as domineering and dismissive, and besides, his character’s evolution is less transparent than Monday’s, as the play prescribes.
At the Brooks Theater, Carol Naegele’s scenic design is suitably bohemian, and the artwork painting by Zachary Elliott is a shadowy blood red. The acoustics in the theater are problematic, however. The actors can be heard all right, but when Rothko’s phonograph isn’t playing one of his favorite classical pieces, a humming is audible beneath the exchanges between May and Monday. At least it was during a recent matinee performance. So rich with both cultural and psychological expression is Logan’s script that no unwarranted noise should intrude. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 5/16/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.