Haley Joel Osment Shines in “Red”

Plus: a review of “Rock of Ages”

It should not be as powerful as it is. After all, it is just two actors painting a canvas red. And yet, with frenetic classical music, a light projecting the actors’ shadows onto the canvas (whose back was to the audience), and the actors’ rapid brush strokes bringing the paint closer and closer to the center, I was mesmerized. This is the genius of John Logan’s Red and its impressive production at Philadelphia Theater Company. Echoing the art of the play’s subject, Mark Rothko, seemingly simple constructs—two actors, a simple set, the painting of a canvas—expand within your view into something extraordinary, something larger than life, something both beautiful and tragic.

Stephen Rowe stars as abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. Having just accepted a commission for New York City’s Four Seasons Restaurant, he hires on a young assistant Ken (Haley Joel Osment) to assist in his studio. As Rothko immediately makes clear, Ken is there to assist: get cigarettes, assemble canvases, and help with base coats. He is not there to paint or have ideas. But quickly Ken learns he is mainly there to be audience to Rothko’s ego and pontifications.

Actors Rowe and Osment are wonderful. Rowe imbues Rothko with grandiosity, unpredictability, and also tender sadness. Osment is equally stirring. For many who have not seen him since his Oscar-nominated performance in The Sixth Sense, his deeper voice and his physique may come as a surprise. But Osment is a natural on the stage. Together these actors have a perfectly uncomfortable chemistry that gives the play life.

And special recognition must be given to director Anders Cato and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau. With just two actors and a minimal set, the direction and the look are never static. Each movement by the actors is unexpected but filled with kinetic energy — like the painting of the canvas. And as lighting was an essential element for Rothko, Micoleau’s designs are equally effective. During a confrontation between Ken and Rothko, their shadows fall on the newly painted red canvas. It is a subtle, but successful effect.

Red is a commanding start to Philadelphia Theater Company’s 2011-2012 season. It should not be missed.

***

Things you should know before seeing Rock of Ages, the first production of the 2011-2012 Philadelphia Broadway season. First, the music will be loud. Seriously, loud. On both sides of the stage speakers are stacked from stage floor to ceiling. Second, the men’s hair will be long, crispy, and feathered. Third, the men’s hips will constantly be grinding. Fourth, the women in the show will wear practically nothing. And play waitresses. And strippers. But for a jukebox musical featuring the best in ’70s and ’80s Monster Ballads and arena rock, the sleazier the better.

Yes there is a plot. A guy and a girl try to make it in L.A. But it’s really not that important. It’s mostly there to bridge between Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” and Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”

If you’re willing to sit through a little raunch and a lot of great music, Rock of Ages is a blast. But if you’re not compelled to dance in the aisles during Slade’s “Cum on Feel the Noize,” then you might just want to rewatch Mamma Mia.

 

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