“Red” starts in 1958, where Ken (Brennan Hattaway) is starting his first day as assistant to the brilliant and uncompromising abstract impressionist painter Mark Rothko (Michael Hays). Rothko has just accepted a commission to create a series of paintings for an upscale restaurant. Over the course of two years — condensed into 90 minutes — Rothko lectures Ken and debates with Ken about how to make art, see art, the commodification of art, the seriousness of an artist, artists compared to other artists, etc. The play also works as an introduction to Rothko, addressing criticisms that his works look like giant paint swatches hung in a museum.
As interesting as all of these discussions are, “Red” is not a discussion. It’s a play. Theater relies on movement and dramatic tension to drive a story. There’s some pacing back and forth; sometimes Rothko yells at Ken and Ken sometimes shouts back. But apart from some moments of intimacy, the dialogue more or less feels like it’s being read from a pulpit rather than infused with character subtext.
That is not to say that the effort is not visible. For a Riverwalk Black Box show, “Red” is fairly solid. Hattaway and Hays work very hard to keep their characters engaging and keep the play moving. There are no gaps in the dialogue. The paint spattered workspace set designed by Nick Eaton feels authentic, and the minimal lighting design by Ted Daniel is appropriate and effective. There’s even a scene of vigorous painting, as the master and his apprentice prepare a canvas for Rothko’s next piece. It’s the fastest bit of painting you will ever see — and, by default, is the most exciting thing to happen in the play.
The second most exciting thing happens near the end of the play, when Ken finally gets to call out Rothko for being a self-righteous hypocrite. Rothko sets him up, saying earlier in the play “artists should starve — except for me.” Ken delivers a passionate battery of zingers that appear to have built up over the course of the play.
But for characters that have beautiful lines like “Where’s the arbitration between what I like and what I respect?” and “There’s tragedy in every brush stroke,” “Red” often feels as flat as the canvases Rothko paints on. There are so many critical arguments to unpack throughout the show, and audiences will likely go home discussing those, but the performances ultimately do not live up to the power of the words.
8 p.m. Friday, March 17-Saturday, March 18; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 19
$12/$10 students, seniors and military
228 Museum Drive, Lansing
(517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com