It’s an isolated character story illustrating the effect of shifts in technology and culture on the appreciation of painting.
Scene after scene of philosophical debate about colors and artists, life and death, light and dark drone on pretentiously.
The closest things to action are the escalating arguments between the decreasingly relevant Rothko and the modern-minded Ken.
Played by PlayMakers newcomer Stephen Caffrey and vet Matt Garner, respectively, the two men’s sparky chemistry helps reel audience members’ attention back in.
Caffrey plays Rothko with the perfect balance between indignant grandpa and genius artist, pushing Garner’s Ken to his bursting point.
Their arguments are heated and messy. They sting and pull “ooh’s” from the audience.
Their bickering imparts the play’s thematic struggle of fresh versus stale far beyond the bubble that is Rothko’s dark warehouse.
The highlight of “Red” came in a choreographed moment between Rothko and Ken. The two men primed a canvas with a deep shade of red paint, each with a brush and a bucket of paint.
Set to an upbeat operatic movement, the two men toss their constant chatter aside and paint, stepping over and crawling under each other in perfect harmony.
The rare moment without conversation pulls life back into the play. It also employs a great use of theatricality — as the canvas gets covered in paint, the lights in the theater slowly shift from white to red.
Other moments of quick, punchy comedy enrich the heavy script, but few last long enough to shake off the feeling of sitting through an art history lecture.
“Red” is difficult to judge. As a script, it’s a masterpiece. As a performance, it’s a bit of a bore.
For PlayMakers, the choice to incorporate the play into its mainstage season was risky.
It is a great production by all means — the actors are perfectly cast, the set is subtly grand and the lighting and music seamlessly became characters of their own.
But the play is overwhelmingly rich with nods to art that aren’t aimed at the audience that Chapel Hill provides, and that’s where the production stumbles.
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