John Logan’s “Red”, starring Bart Guingona and Joaquin Valdes

It’s funny that when Red, John’s Logan’s play about painter Mark Rothko, premiered in London in 2009, it received mixed reviews although its actors, Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne, got accolades. Last night, we saw Red and I can’t find fault with it. The play itself is the most nuanced and the most cerebrally stimulating piece of writing I have come across in a very long time; the performances by Bart Guingona and Joaquin Valdes reminded me of why I fell in love with the theater back in college long ago. The experience was, simply, theater at its best.

Mark Rothko was an abstract expressionist painter who first gained notice in the 1930s. At the height of his career, he was commissioned by Seagram, the beverage company, to paint murals for The Four Seasons Restaurant in its new building on Park Avenue in New York. Red takes place during the time that he was working on the murals.

Red opens with Rothko hiring a new assistant, Ken, himself an aspiring painter. Timid and intimidated at first by the larger-than-life reputation of Rothko, over the two years that Ken worked for the famous painter, their relationship progressed to one where they were on equal footing. At the end of the play, Rothko fires Ken, telling him to go out, find his own contemporaries, develop his own style and give the world something new.

A play with only two characters may seem boring and uninteresting for most. But the dialogues in Red are so intensely charged with issues that, I find, all artists should find the time to address. Is art still art when the artist merely panders to fashion and trend, doing what the public clamors for rather than creating something that is truly an expression of himself? Can art and commercialism co-exist in peace and harmony?

At the other end of the spectrum, why do people buy and collect art? Is it truly because of a deep understanding and appreciation for the shapes, colors and dimensions in a canvass? Or is it because a neighbor has one and one must have the same? Does hanging a painting in the dining room prove that its owner understands art or have paintings simply become a part of interior design just like a piece of furniture?

From one perspective, with a subject like that, it is almost understandable why the play got mixed reviews when it first came out in London. The words — those painfully searing words — must have hit some very raw nerves among the artists and the artist-loving lot. It must have been a distressing experience to be forced to look inward and ask if what one was doing was still art or if one has sold out and prostituted his craft. For the rich (and the pretentious) who collect art pieces as a testament to how much money they have, hearing the words said — so harshly and so unapologetically — must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

Red ran for an hour and a half with no intermission. It took place in the same artist’s studio. With the simplicity of the set, the absence of grand visuals and eye-candy costumes, a play would be hard to pull off. But when you have a masterful script and high-calibre performers, watching Red is an electrifying experience. Bart Guingona was, in a word, masterful. Joaquin Valdes as Ken was appropriately subservient, or so it seemed, until he dared to challenge Rothko’s self-proclaimed purity as an artist and called him a hypocrite.

Truth be told, when I watched Cats, I was bored and sleepy half the time — despite the magnificent visuals. When I saw The Phantom of the Opera, there were a few short moments when my concentration wobbled and my mind wandered.

But never, not even for a second, did I lose focus while watching Red. I was enraptured. And that hasn’t happened in a long, long time — not since I saw Miss Saigon. My eyes were focused on the stage and the actors as though they were a camera lens zeroing in on its subject. My ears blocked out everything else and were trained only to hear the actors’ voices, perceive every inflection and absorb all the emotion. Not that there was a lot of ambient noise to block out anyway. Last night’s audience was the most quiet that I have encountered. The only two people who didn’t seem engrossed in the play were the ones seated in front of me and they left some fifteen minutes after the play started. Their loss.

Red will have its last show tonight at 7.30 at the SDA Theater, Pablo Ocampo Street in Manila.

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