8/22: Rothko’s in the Chapel, with RED

Ronald Brown (as real-life painter Mark Rothko) and David Murgittroyd (as his not-so-real life assistant) star in the ReVision Theatre production of John Logan’s Tony winning drama RED — the first non-musical offering in the Asbury-based company’s history — going up this week on the St. George stage.

Granted, they’re ALL eagerly anticipated. Given how razor-thin an edge most theatrical companies skate on — and given how much is at stake with each production — it’s understandable how every show can be promoted as if it’s the second coming of Sliced Bread: The Musical.

Still, if you detect just a bit more ambient hum from the buzz surrounding the ReVision Theatre production of  John Logan’s Red, go to the head of the apse — because when the ReVival of the two-character drama goes up inside the former Greek Orthodox church that’s been RePurposed as the Theatre at St. George, it’ll mark a significant set of firsts. For starters, it’s the first fully staged non-musical offering in the five-season history of the Asbury-based professional company that was all but left for roadkill late last year. It’s an opening bid in the ReMade/ ReModeled troupe’s gambit to be counted as a purveyor of stuff that skews a tad more serious than Xanadu or The Bikinis. And, it’s the first area exposure for the 2010 Tony Award winner as Best Play; a work that generated a good deal of interest during its very limited Broadway engagement — although for a lot of folks, this correspondent included, it remained one of those shows that you forever meant to see but just didn’t get around to.

The dramatic duet from the author best known for his screenplays — a body that includes Gladiator and The Aviator; Hugo and Rango; Sweeney Todd and the new James Bond — is a portrait of Mark Rothko (1903-1970), the Russian-born modern abstract expressionist whose bold and blocky “multiform” canvases were a series of colorful, confrontational flatscreen TVs in a fuzzy-kinescope DuMont era. Although pitched as a dialogue between Rothko and a fully fictional assistant named Ken, Red takes form around a real-deal episode in the life of the painter.

When the Seagram company came calling upon rising art-world star Rothko in 1958 — with a commission to furnish original paintings for the swanky new Four Seasons restaurant inside their Manhattan headquarters — what might have been an early example of corporate co-opting became instead a story of breaches of contract, changes of heart, and crises of conscience.

The Four Seasons would never get its Rothkos (the forty completed pieces would scatter to several museums in the US and Japan); Rothko would never get to keep the advance money, but some 50 years later the world would get Red — a drama that ReVision’s Artistic Director Bob Angelini has called “a masterpiece…Logan exposes Rothko’s innermost thoughts and invites us to gaze within our own soul.”

A curious flop on London’s West End, the play would garner seven Tony nods, with Alfred Molina nominated in the role of Rothko — and Eddie Redmayne going on to win as Best Featured Actor for his work as Ken, a surrogate voice of conscience who “questions Rothko’s theories of art” and “plants doubts about the appropriateness of hanging his paintings in such a ‘temple of consumption’.”

In the production under the direction of Angelini (the award winning theater-arts teacher who just inaugurated the St. George space with a successful engagement of Pippin), seasoned stage character actor Ronald L. Brown (Cats, Camelot, and mucho La Mancha) stars alongside David Murgittroyd, a young veteran of DC’s Shakespeare Theatre and numerous TV commercials. The two actors began rehearsals on the all-purpose stage of the old church building’s gymnasium, as Pippin continued its quest in the main sanctuary-turned-proscenium.

Speaking backstage during the penultimate performance of Pippin, Angelini allowed that “I always thought it was a really interesting play…until I saw them perform it, and I realized just how powerful it really is.”

“It’s inspirational,” the director observed, recalling “a painting that I did once as a donation for an art auction, and that sold for 90 dollars…I never did find out who bought it.”

“The feelings that I had for that piece of art were so real,” Angelini continued. “The process that Rothko used to create these paintings in the show made me personally want to crack out the old paintbrushes down in the basement.”

As the director tells it, the actors in the show get to incorporate some of that technique into their performances — although the artist’s estate puts down some pretty definite guidelines governing the use of the paintings seen in the play (available by producers as downloadable reproductions). For example, the audience is forbidden from seeing the paintings in full-on frontal view — and the repros must be destroyed within two weeks of the show’s final curtain.

In the end, Angelini regards Red as a fortuitously timed good fit for artistically minded Asbury town, as well as for “this great community arts center” that the ReVision team has additional plans for before the current lease arrangement comes up in March of next year. There’s talk right now of a possible third fully staged production prior to the end of the year (titles being bandied about loosely include Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) — with the further possibility of a festival of new short plays, and a chance for an announcement to be made prior to the end of Red‘s run.

“The community knows the importance of having us here,” says the director, adding that “a whole lot of businesses here in town, Madison Marquette on the boardwalk, and in Ocean Grove and other places, have really stepped up and helped us in tremendous ways.”

“We want to maintain our Equity status,” maintains Angelini, adding that “the salary isn’t high, but we pay health and pension costs, housing…we rent a house for the Equity people right on the corner from the theater…and the trade-off is that we get actors with Broadway experience.”

Red opens on Thursday, August 23 and runs 15 performances — Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; Wednesdays and Sundays at 7pm —  through September 9. Tickets ($15 – $40) can be reserved right here, or by calling the box office at 732.455.3059 weekdays from 12 to 6pm.