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  1. Stage

Review: Confident brush strokes paint an eminently watchable 'Red' at Heather Theatre

TAMPA — You can always count on the Heather Theatre to do one thing. And that is to produce meaningful plays, and find within each the burning ember that gives off heat and light.

So it is again with Red, John Logan's deconstruction of a brilliant artist caught in human intimacy, something he dreads and cannot live without. If the play is any indication, Mark Rothko was terrible at relationships of any kind. But like the canvases he painted, what he showed the world only modified a base layer and you can't understand one without the other.

This short play starts with that ember, the tip of Rothko's lit cigarette as he communes with his canvas in the dark. Director Roxanne Fay placed some of the canvases offstage, where the audience sits. In the Heather, that's because there isn't room for more; the same closeness means you will smell the cigarette smoke and wince as some of the arguments between Rothko and his assistant in this two-character play get heated. The theater's job is to have all of that conflict and discomfort mean something, say something, massage this show you might have seen before into one you haven't.

This they did, and the result is lovely. I say that in spite of the fact that Sunday's dress rehearsal surely will improve by opening night Friday. It doesn't hurt that this is an incredibly well constructed play (a 2010 Tony winner for best play), one that makes an explicit point and body slams it home, namely that everything changes, especially art. Those who have trouble coping will have a rough time, a factor that could possibly have contributed to Rothko's suicide in 1970.

The play is set in 1959-60, a time when abstract expressionism famously depicted by Jackson Pollack, Rothko's contemporary, is giving way to the pop art of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg.

Ken, a fictional assistant, arrives at Rothko's New York studio to help the artist prepare murals for the Four Seasons restaurant. Their relationship is a study in contrasts. Rothko introduces him to this messy world by telling him he is not Ken's parent or therapist, yet he clearly wants to be both. His study of Nietzsche and Freud inspires him; he uses both to bludgeon his apprentice while taking little appreciable interest in Ken's ideas. He is torn between his vision of himself as an uncompromising truth teller and the prices people pay for his work, which has become a status symbol. After being browbeaten for his shallowness, Ken reads Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy. He not only comprehends it, but uses its messages to deconstruct Rothko himself. The play, set off in segments with mini-breaks to denote the passage of time, is the story of Ken's journey to intellectual equality.

Ward Smith, the Heather's artistic director, smolders and fumes as Rothko, a man who could go from berating his assistant to casual chatting in a second, his way of showing kindness. It's a plausible and well-executed interpretation, even if at times Smith talks so fast it's hard to imagine even a genius that quick with repartee. It is as if he is surfing on a torrent of words. Would it kill him to pause a millisecond?

David Schneider, as Ken, is making his first professional stage appearance, but you wouldn't know it. His previous television work (including NBC's Gone and Hulu's The First) obviously prepared him for emoting, even if it also shrunk the space in which he feels comfortable living and moving. Chances are the latter won't be true for long. Schneider presented a consistent Ken, one who grows in confidence until he eventually ensnares Rothko in his own contradictions.

"You guys banished the realists and cubists and boy, did you love it," Ken says during a pivotal argument. "Now your time has come and you don't want to let it go."

How does a famously conflicted artist deal with having the fight brought to him for a change? You'll have to see the show to find out. If you care about quality theater, you should.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

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