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The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Review | ‘Red’ is an immersive and philosophical play

City Circle’s production of John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play “Red” opened on Feb. 23. Telling the story of modern art legend Mark Rothko, the two-man show is well worth the watch.
Photo contributed by Evan Hilsabeck of City Circle Theatre Company

John Logan’s award-winning play “Red” has been revitalized by City Circle Theatre Company through an intimate, wildly entertaining performance.

The biographical drama depicts painter Mark Rothko as he worked on the biggest commission in the history of modern art with his student assistant Ken over two years. Though the cast comprises only two characters, confined to the same space the entire play, Logan’s Tony award-winning script never becomes stale.

I’m stating the obvious when I say “Red” is an excellent play. It has been staged on Broadway, London’s West End, and across the world for over a decade.

There is such a dynamic, scholarly flow to the way the characters talk. Pontificating on the necessity and spirituality of art could grow stale if done poorly. However, with such life-like characters, the artful discussions are consistently riveting.

This is mostly thanks to the fantastic performances of Kehry Anson Lane as Rothko and Ellis Fontana as Ken. Throughout five scenes, Lane and Fontana bring Rothko and Ken to life.

Rothko is a stubborn, intellectual painter. Early in the show, he declares painting to be 90 percent waiting and “10 percent putting paint onto the canvas.” He is quick to anger and has spent the majority of his career in self-isolation.

On the other hand, Ken is an eager art student who wants to learn from working under one of the best modern artists of his generation. The dynamic between a seasoned artist and a young new-wave idealist is fascinating to watch.

I found myself frequently stressed out on behalf of Ken, who is so careful to tiptoe around Rothko in the early scenes as not to set him off. We’re shown early on, through a fantastic monologue from Lane, that Rothko can cut deep when he starts attacking.

The relationship between the curmudgeon Rothko and bright-eyed Ken develops in entrancing ways until they form a touching bond in the latter scenes.

Fontana no doubt faced a challenge in bringing Ken to life beside the towering Rothko. As the center of the play, Rothko naturally dominates the stage with Ken often maneuvering around him. But the spatiality and blocking shifts as the two grow more comfortable around each other until the space seems to be completely co-inhabited.

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The production space is important to any show, but in the case of “Red,” performed at Brush and Barrel in Coralville, a close-quarters stage felt perfect. The actors already wholly embody their characters but allowing them to exist in a realistic space which the audience is invited into makes the whole show immersive.

The discussion of art and legacy within “Red” continues to be timeless. Just as Rothko battles the next generation of pop artists for the gallery spotlight, today’s artists compete with the threat of Artificial Intelligence. Rothko and Ken’s inconclusive debates over an artist’s intentions and feelings coincide with the debate over AI art’s inability to produce such aspects.

The themes of “Red” were as prescient in 2009, when it was published, as they were in 1958 when the play was set, but they are even more pertinent today.

City Circle’s production of “Red” is an immersive and powerful experience for any art or theater fans. The show will run from Feb. 23-25 and March 1-3 at Brush and Barrel.

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About the Contributor
Charlie Hickman
Charlie Hickman, Arts Reporter
Charlie Hickman is a sophomore at the University of Iowa. He is majoring in English on the Pre-Law track with minors in Political Science and Cinema.