Two painters stood before an 8-foot-tall canvas, silently slathering it in rust-colored paint and filling the stage of Boise Contemporary Theater with the smell of latex. It was opening night of John Logan's Red (Oct. 12) and if ever there was a testament to a play's ability to engage its audience, it was the laughter at the physical comedy of high-modernist painter Mark Rothko (Arthur Hughes) and his assistant, Ken (Reggie Gowland), navigating each other as they painted their canvas.
Red is the story of Rothko's time painting the murals commissioned for the Seagram Building in New York with the help of Ken, a neophyte painter from Iowa. During the two years it took to complete the work, Ken learned from the master about literature, philosophy, music and his heroes, only to feel disillusioned and stifled by his pedantic, unpredictable boss.
Hughes' self-assured Rothko is at the peak of his talents—if not of his relevance—and his performance includes nods to Rothko's growing sense of obsolescence: a cocky but padding stride, hands thrust in pockets and the hawkish expression of a man looking to harp on one misspoken word from his apprentice. Gowland has wrestled Ken away from what could be read as a sycophant, playing the wide-eyed kid with refreshing skepticism.
The play takes place in Rothko's Manhattan studio, which set designer Michael Baltzell has filled with three life-size Rothko replicas, two workbenches and a record player. The stage itself is smudged, scuffed and paint-dotted. Props master Bernadine Cockey has cobbled together a supply of paint-splattered artifacts, and the effect is that of a heavily used space lavishly stocked with an artist's glut of accoutrements.
As beautiful as the set is, it's also a scene of isolation as Rothko distastefully describes sojourns to art museums and The Four Seasons restaurant. Though Rothko's studio begins as his creative space, it becomes his refuge—then his prison.
At its core, Red pulls apart dualities like mind and body, fathers and sons. Where the BCT production excels is in the understated way it resolves those dualities. Though the only sounds were the strokes of Rothko's and Ken's brushes, the shared painting scene showed old and young, eclectic and methodical, harmoniously laboring. The play abounds in moments when opposites parlay.
At the beginning of the play, Rothko asks Ken, who is looking into the audience as though at a painting, "What do you see?" "Red," Ken says. It's the wrong answer—"red" isn't specific enough—but as the two grow together, the word becomes a password, code for their relationship, the terms of which aren't expressed in words, but in paint.