San Diego Theater Review: RED (San Diego REP)

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by Milo Shapiro on April 7, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Is a soup can art?  To Matisse, probably not.  To Warhol, clearly yes.  And to everyone else?  Ah, that’s when we start getting into what art really is.  Playwright John Logan’s Red looks deeply at this question from the perspectives of two very different men in 1958.

L-R Jason Maddy and John Vickery in San Diego REP's production of RED.

The main character is real-life abstract impressionist painter Mark Rothko, played by John Vickery.  Rothko is smug and pretentious in his ideas of what art is and what it isn’t.  He pulls no punches in judging the work of not only his contemporaries but of the next generation of impressionists rising to his level of fame.

John Vickery, Jason Maddy in San Diego REP's production of RED.

To create the plot of this drama, Logan has Rothko play off of the fictional character of Ken (Jason Maddy), a budding artist hired by Rothko as a personal assistant to run errands, mix paint, build canvases, and so forth.  More than anything else, though, one feels that Ken has been hired by Rothko to give himself an audience for his own pontificating.  Ken is initially thrilled to have the chance to be in the protégé role, but quickly realizes that Rothko is not the mentoring type.

Jason Maddy, John Vickery in San Diego REP's production of RED.

In another role, Vickery’s acting here could perhaps be accused of being too grandiose, but in this case, it works well, aptly defining Rothko’s egotistical, self-aggrandizing style.  Nothing is over the top for Rothko because he’s certain that every word he says is precious, the essence of understanding the depth of art.

Jason Maddy and John Vickery star in San Diego REP's production of RED.

The play evolves over two years wherein Rothko, through an extraordinary fee, has been commissioned to create a series of paintings to be prominently displayed in New York’s Four Seasons restaurant.  In that time, Ken raises the courage to challenge Rothko more and more in his beliefs about what art is and how it might be appreciated.  A stirring moment occurs when, in trying to be supportive, Ken says, “They’re just paintings,” and Vickery looks as though someone has just turned a knife in his gut.

Jason Maddy and John Vickery in San Diego REP's production of RED.

Director Michael Arabian, Scenic Designer Giulio Perrone, and Lighting Designer Brian Gale do an exquisite job in a few places of painting their own picture on the stage, especially in a particularly ominous moment which features one of Rothko’s striking paintings.

The writing of Red follows the dramatic arc to a tee, with exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement sharply defined.  The big problem, though, is that there is so much exposition and rising action in this 95 minute one-act play that it fails to be gripping for the first hour; this made for occasional watch-John Vickery in San Diego REP's production of RED.checking and wishing for an intermission.  Without much action, most of the time is spent defining Rothko’s character while precious little is known about Ken until much later.  Rothko is interesting, but, unless one is a zealot for modern art, Logan’s didactic script—detailing Rothko’s borderline narcissism—isn’t fascinating enough to hold us for so long.

That said, when the climactic scene finally comes, it’s riveting, both in the writing and Maddy’s impassioned delivery of a frustrated Ken.  The play’s apex has our full attention as the two must deal with the fallout of their choices.  From that climax on, one can see why this became the darling of the 2010 Tony Awards (including Best Play), but San Diego is not New York.  Whether or not San Diegans will talk up this extremely artsy program enough to make it a hit will be interesting to see.

photos by Daren Scott

San Diego REPertory Theatre
Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza
scheduled to end on April 27, 2014
for tickets, call 619-544-1000 or visit

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