You don't have to be a lover of visual arts to appreciate John Logan's Tony Award-winning play Red, now playing at Actors Guild of Lexington. But to get the full effect, it's important to try to be what artist Mark Rothko calls a "sensitive human being."
In one of the play's many brilliant and self-indulgent tirades, Rothko (played by Tim X. Davis) describes art as an interactive experience, a living relationship between the painting and the viewer, not simply a product for consumption or, worse, decoration.
That sentiment is underscored by Jerome Davis' direction of Red, which invites the audience to experience the master-student conflict, and the myriad struggles that conflict represents, as it plays out in Rothko's New York studio in the late 1950s.
Red presents this ancient dichotomy with unabashed artfulness, directly asking big, meaningful questions without apology or detached cleverness.
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Why should we create? What is art and why is it important? Where is my place, as an artist, as a human being, on the unfolding time line of Western civilization? How do I become and remain significant?
These questions are for the audience as much as the artist.
It is no accident that Jerome Davis uses the implied fourth wall, between the audience and actors, as Rothko's canvas. The play opens (and returns many times) with Rothko gazing deep into this invisible wall, lost in the "thinking" that is pivotal to creation. It is a poignant reminder that the audience and the actors are creating the evening's experience together.
Tim X. Davis as Rothko, and Marshall Manley as his assistant Ken, form an explosive duo whose different experiences and ideals constantly clash, changing them both for the better. One is significant, one is irrelevant, for now. Fighting about art pulls them apart; making art brings them together. It's as fascinating to watch young Ken's confidence and self-esteem grow as it is to watch Rothko's blustering, inflated assurance erode.
There is a musicality to their relationship that Tim X. Davis and Manley capture with striking elegance. Like the tension among the colors in Rothko's paintings, they are always "pulsing," a living example of the ebb and flow of creation — which Logan refers to in many intellectual allusions to literature and other works of art.
This musicality is enhanced by Tommy Gatton's sound design. Classical music continually wafts from an old record player throughout the studio, except for the brief moment when Ken sneaks some jazz in on the offended Rothko.
Because Rothko didn't think natural light was "good enough" for his paintings and that the wrong, garish light could "hurt" his paintings, lighting designer Mylissa Crutcher had her work cut out for her. She frames Rothko's work in a gentle glow that invites the audience deeper into painter DeAnna Rigney's re-creations of Rothko's work and deeper still into the conflicted psyche of one of the 20th century's most celebrated, and most misunderstood, artists.
IF YOU GO
What: Actors Guild of Lexington's production of John Logan's Tony-winning play from 2009.
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 25, 26, Feb. 1, 2; 2 p.m. Jan. 27 and Feb. 3
Where: AGL's South Elkhorn Theatre, 4383 Old Harrodsburg Rd.
Tickets: $20, $15 seniors and students, $10 military. Call 1-866-811-4111 or go to Actors-guild.org.