RED – theatre review

The Dual Critics traveled up the coast to Fernandina Beach, Florida to catch the final performance of John Logan’s “Red”, which was onstage from May 11 through May 18. When “Red” won six Tony awards, including Best Play, in 2010, we weren’t able to see it in it in New York. We were hoping a theatre in Florida would do it, but never in a million years thought it would be on the schedule of the 36-seat Fernandina Little Theatre.
Director Amelia Hart took on the challenge of this complex play, and was able to mount an excellent production with the assistance of two dedicated and outstanding performers. This play is about the real life abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. The time and place is 1958-59 in his New York City studio in the Bowery. It is a portrait of a highly regarded and prolific painter, whose painting “Black on Maroon” is valued between $8 and $14 million by the New York Times.
In this play Rothko is preparing several murals under a $35,000 contract, which will grace the walls of the new up-scale Four Seasons restaurant located in the Seagram building in New York.
Rothko has hired a young assistant to help prepare paints and canvases, who is more importantly a sounding board for Rothko’s ideas about color, painting, and life in general. Ken, who is an aspiring painter, is at first very shy, but gradually becomes more assertive in expressing his beliefs. The related give and take results in heated debates about various painters (including, among others, Frank Stella, Picasso, Warhol, Rauschenberg and the Impressionists), their methods, and whether they deserve the critical and popular acclaim they have achieved. And in an outstanding piece of performance art, the two paint a large scale canvas together.
Gill Johnston, a Fernandina actor making his debut performance at FLT, has appeared in numerous roles in other venues, including Devin Mann’s Backlight Theatre. He was marvelously intense and marvelously believable as Rothko.
Hays Jacobs, a Douglas Anderson School of the Arts senior, is equally impressive as the young artist seeking a mentor, who is sparring on equal terms with Rothko by the end of the play. We have seen Mr. Jacobs in the past in Jacksonville as Darth Vader in DA’s “Harold and the Purple Crayon” and as Sampson in the production of “Romeo and Juliet” by Theater Jacksonville.
Director Amelia Hart also designed the lights, sound, set and music for the production. Nothing fancy about the set, which does successfully portray a studio designed for large-scale works and is largely black with touches of red. Rothko apparently liked music in the background, and Ms. Hart’s selections were intriguing. The music was played by the actors, who used a small phonograph.
The play is filled with humor, but also offers thought-provoking insights into the world of art. Past and present art students will love it, since it’s filled with discussions of art history, technique, and style. And while this fine production has closed, you will have the opportunity to see “Red ” in Jacksonville when the Atlantic Beach Experimental Theater (ABET) does it next season. There are times when it pays to do a bit of research on a play you are going to see, and this is one. We suggest some internet research to take a look at Wikipedia’s Rothko bio and images of his paintings.
This was our second trip to Fernandina Little Theatre and we love the really intimate setting that a thirty-six seat theatre can provide. It very much makes you as an audience member feel like a part of the play. Their upcoming season includes George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida” and “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz, which was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer prize for drama. Visit for additional information about the theatre.