‘Red’ by Compass Rose Theater asks provocative questions about art

Compass Rose Theater’s production of Red is a wonderfully powerful production. Set in New York during the 1950s, John Logan’s 2010 play is about the artist Mark Rothko, and it offers profound, sometimes provocative discussions about art and artists, literature, and philosophy.

Omar A. Said and Gary Goodson in ‘Red.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Rothko hires a young aspiring artist named Ken to help complete murals for the newly constructed Four Seasons restaurant. Directed by James Bunzli in the Power House Building at the Hotel Annapolis (formerly Loews Hotel), Red is an intimate exploration of the relationship between teacher and student.

Gary Goodson plays Rothko as something of a curmudgeon, pontificating about artists becoming commodities and what he thinks of as the “unseriousness” of upcoming artists like Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol. Angrily defending his commission for the restaurant, he contends that he wants his murals to “disturb every diner in the place.” His anger can be incredibly physical, at one point throwing tubes of paint in frustration at something Ken (Omar A. Said) says, before engaging in a confrontational word association dialogue with him over the color “red.” Another time, he threateningly puts his hand on Ken’s chest and head. He also delivers rich insights into many different topics, challenging Ken to think deeper.

Omar A. Said plays Ken with a quiet strength. A little timid on first meeting the great artist, he quickly stands up for himself, telling Rothko to “give me a second” before giving his thoughts about a painting. He asks thoughtful questions, allowing Rothko to consider what he means. One of Said’s most powerful scenes is his vivid description of a childhood tragedy and the color in a painting that reminds him of it. In another poignant scene, he rails at Rothko for his distaste of younger artists and his hypocrisy at taking the Four Seasons commission, his voice full of contempt. For some of that speech, the two stand on opposite sides of the stage, not looking at each other directly.

The set, designed by James Bunzli, transforms a hotel conference room into an artist’s studio, with a table covered with paint supplies, drinks, glasses, and a record player in the back middle, while on the left is a stool and on the far right an upholstered chair. A huge canvas stands to the far left. What really sets the scene, though, are the paintings, by Scenic Painter Lucy Fanto, on the far back of the stage, done in various shades of red in the style of the mural series. Bunzli, also the Sound Designer, ensures the music from the record player never overwhelming the dialogue.

Omar A. Said and Gary Goodson in ‘Red.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Lighting Designer Jenai German, who also serves as Stage Manager, along with Lighting Assistant Omar A. Said, cut the lights for scene breaks. The lights are low for most of the performance, occasionally coming up for effect.

James Bunzli does a wonderful job as Director. Goodson and Said work incredibly well together, moving as well as talking throughout the performance, using all parts of the stage. Their priming of the canvas, done to music, feels almost sensual. The audience turns into voyeurs almost, as they watch two different, complex personalities clashing and pushing each other. Red shows Compass Rose’s skill in turning any venue into a place for powerful, intimate theater. Be sure to see it!

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 15 minutes, with no intermission.

Red by Compass Rose Theater plays through February 16, 2020, at Hotel Annapolis (formerly Loews Hotel), Power House Building, 126 West Street in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-980-6662 or purchase them online.


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