Mark Rothko’s studio in the Bowery is not a place for the timid. That’s what the obliging young Ken (Jason Maddy) quickly finds out when he becomes assistant (more like glorified go-fer, at first) to the lauded abstract expressionist. Immediately, the bellowing, salvo-firing Rothko (John Vickery) informs Ken that he’s not his friend and he’s definitely not he’s teacher. Yet that’s what happens over the course of 90 or so minutes in San Diego Rep’s production of John Logan’s Red, directed by Michael Arabian. But before it’s over – and it ends all too quickly, for this is a fascinating character study of a man who was so much more than just his paintings – Rothko has learned a few things about himself from young Ken, though he’s loathe to admit it.
The Rep acquitted itself so splendidly last year with its one-man tale of another timeless painter, Picasso: A Weekend with Pablo Picasso, starring Herbert Siguenza. But if that story was told with lust for life and whimsy, this one is wrapped in Rothko’s ego and bluster, and, we learn, doubt. Vickery is positively commanding in the role, so passionate about his darlings as well as his demons that you accept every high-minded, acerbic word as the Gospel According to a Master. Maddy remains in the background as prescribed for the first half of the one-act play, but his courage and his spine build to a crowd-pleasing tell-off moment that just bounces off Rothko like bullets off Superman.
Red is an accelerated education in art-making and art history for those open to it, and for those who aren’t – hell, what are you doing at this show anyway?
Red rocks. Don’t miss it.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.