A review of The Space Between Theatre Company's May 2016 production of "Red." I played Mark Rothko, Jesse Nepivoda played his assistant, Ken.
For a few moments after the play ended, nobody moved. We sat transfixed, attempting to process the majesty and beauty of what we had just experienced.
Kelly Thomas, the director, exited the control booth to make sure we knew the play was over and that the two actors, Varlo Davenport and Jesse Nepivoda, would not be returning to the stage. We simply told her that we just needed a minute to process.
Such is the triumph of “RED,” a play by John Logan that is currently in production by The Space Between Theatre Company at the DiFiore Center in St. George.
It’s difficult to describe the impact of “RED” because words don’t seem adequate. The language of Logan’s play is so poetic and powerful that anything I write will pale by comparison.
Yet this production’s greatness goes far beyond the Tony Award-winning source material itself. This tragically beautiful play could easily crumble in the wrong hands. But Thomas and her assistant director, Jacob Beecher, have done a masterful job in staging “RED.”
As an audience we feel as if we are actually sitting in Mark Rothko’s New York City studio in 1958 as he works on a massive commission for The Four Seasons restaurant. Part of that sense of transportation is found in the director’s decision to stage the play in a small room at the DiFiore Center. There is only enough space for about a dozen audience members, all of whom sit in single rows along three of the four walls.
Still, the acting remains the single element that can truly make or break a play but Davenport and Nepivoda deliver one of the most strongly acted plays I’ve ever seen — that includes professional productions in London, Statford and St. Louis as well as dozens of plays at both Tuacahn and the Utah Shakespeare Festival here in Southern Utah. They are that good.
Davenport’s presence is captivating from the moment he appears on stage, gazing straight ahead at an unseen work of art. We don’t see an actor when he’s on stage; we see Mark Rothko.
“What do you see?” Rothko asks Ken, a fictional studio assistant created for the play.
In those four words we discover the path this play will take over the next 90 minutes or so. It’s Davenport and Nepivoda, as Ken, who take us down this path. As a two-person play, they are both on stage for nearly the entire dialogue-heavy production. It must be both mentally and emotionally exhausting for the actors as they delve into the troubled minds of their characters.
At first the character of Ken seems lightweight compared to Rothko. While Davenport’s performance is pervasive, crashing through the production like an avalanche of genius, Nepivoda delivers with nuance, lulling us at first with Ken’s aloof demeanor before his mic-drop moment as he goes toe-to-toe with the force of nature that is Mark Rothko: “Is it just possible that no one is worthy to look at your pictures?”
The atmosphere of the space is perfect for these performances. It’s small enough we can hear their near-whispered musings. And when they explode in fury, we can almost feel the wind of their screams.
Even in the rare moments when they aren’t speaking, the actors play off each other. As Rothko invites Ken to prime the canvas with him, we see them approach its glaring whiteness together, then suddenly they are painting — moving together, yet apart — generating a fervor in their movement that is at once intense and graceful, vigorous yet ethereal.
It all builds to the final scene as Rothko appears alone in his studio, stumbling through the red-hued darkness as music blares. Red paint drips from his hands like blood. Then he launches into a tirade about the depravity of the socialites who dine at The Four Seasons, describing it as “forced gaiety at gunpoint.”
It’s unfortunate that the theater students at Dixie State University have lost this tremendous talent.
In the midst of “RED,” I thought of how it reminded me of “Art,” the play by Yasmina Reza that the Utah Shakespeare Festival staged a few years ago. It is one of the best productions I’ve seen at USF. That comparison made me think of how art about art leads to some of the most intellectually moving creations.
Yet art about art also faces a great obstacle: the attempt to portray a certain type of grandeur through a dissimilar form. That is the challenge facing me as I attempt to write about this sublime piece of theater. My words do not feel worthy of my subject.
Part of me wants to heed Rothko’s rumination as he says, “Silence is so … accurate.” But a column full of nihility lacks purpose and I feel compelled to at least make an attempt at conveying the wonder of this play. So I will say this plainly: If you consider yourself a fan of live theater, this is a must-see production.
If adult language bothers you, be warned there is a small amount — enough to garner an R-rating as a film. However, the language is part of the tragedy it describes.
Near the beginning of the play, Rothko tells Ken he knows his paintings are finished when there is “tragedy in every brushstroke.” Perhaps that is why “RED” is such a compelling play. It’s bursting with brushstrokes of tragedy.
“RED” is halfway through its eight-day run. It continues at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 6 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $14 or $12 for students and seniors. Visit tsbtc.org.
Email reporter Brian Passey at email@example.com and follow him at Facebook.com/PasseyBrian or on Twitter and Instagram, @BrianPassey. Call him at 435-674-6296.