Review: Red by Penfold Theatre Company
by David Glen Robinson

Ryan Crowder, Steven Pounder (photo: Kimberley Mead)Red is a tragedy, make no mistake, but it is one in love with life, and most especially with the color red.  As with the very best plays, Red tells everything plainly to the audience.  The promotional material for the play is full of piquant quotations from the script, by way of Mark Rothko, the central character.  My favorite, not in any of the cut-lines is: “There is tragedy in every brushstroke.” 


And so the tragedy played itself out, revolving around the modernist abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and set in his warehouse-y lower Manhattan studio.  The time of the play was the peak of Rothko’s career, when he was painting his commission for murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in Manhattan.


At the time, it was the most valuable art commission ever, paying $35,000.  The commissioner was the architect Philip Johnson through his patron, international modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, perhaps the reigning art god of the twentieth century, who changed history more profoundly even than Picasso.


These were heady times, indeed, a few years past Jackson Pollock’s death (which Rothko insisted was suicide) at a point at which a few thinkers like Rothko saw Pop Art coming to replace all the abstract expressionists and knew it would be a painful death.


Penfold Theatre’s production of Red is a major score; they have captured the Austin premiere of this John Logan play, a Tony award winner, first staged in London in 2009.  Penfold treats the play very well, staging it on the thrust stage of the Trinity Street Theatre, fourth floor of the First Baptist Church at 901 Trinity St., downtown.  Steven Pounders plays Rothko, and Ryan Crowder, producing artistic director of Penfold, plays Ken, Rothko’s newly hired studio assistant.  Rothko was known for his acerbic statements about the art world, and many of those comments have found their way into Logan’s script.  Rothko was no Oscar Wilde for biting irony and sarcasm, but in his rage he came close.



Steven Pounder, Ryan Crowder (photo: Kimberley Mead)




Ryan Crowder, Steven Pounder (photo: Kimberley Mead)Three elements of the production gave the play a marvelous sense of intimacy, the wraparound and close up space of Trinity Street theatre, the set design, and the cast limited to two characters. Altogether, the audience seemed to be insiders, almost voyeurs, to two sometimes-angry intimates trading their deepest secrets.  Kudos go to director Nathan Jerkins and Penfold for taking us there and treating us in kindly fashion upon arrival.


Although the set assisted the intimate atmosphere, it also detracted from the play by enforcing the somewhat overly traditional fourth wall concept.  A brief description helps explain this.  The downstage boundary was formed by two wooden construction two-by-fours dropped from and held vertically by an overhead beam, as in the studwork of the walls of a residential dwelling.  This created the suggestion of a set wall between the stage and the house center audience.  The construction represented a wall of Rothko’s studio where the imaginary canvases for the murals leaned.


 By this set design artifice the actors could peer at the imaginary canvases and so play directly and clearly to the audience.  For that purpose it was good, making for efficient direction, but it was also confining, appearing to make Rothko rage, rage against the fading of the light from inside a fish tank or terrarium.



Ryan Crowder, Steven Pounder (photo: Kimberley Mead)


This play will appeal to just about every artist and art historian, including everyone who ever enjoyed finger-painting in nursery school.  When, after much discourse on the meaning of red and many other art topics, the actors actually painted a large canvas, priming it in red, I wanted to give them a standing ovation.  They demonstrated the craft and skill of painting, giving us the goods at last.  This was a rare theatre and art moment, well-timed and satisfying.


Red runs until September 29 at the Trinity Street Theatre.  People should make an effort to see this play, as it is likely to become a modern classic.  Penfold Theatre deserves loud applause for bringing it to Austin.


by John Logan
Penfold Theatre Company

September 12 - September 29, 2013
Trinity Street Players
Black Box Theatre, 4th floor, First Baptist Church
901 Trinity Street
Austin, TX, 78701