Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review: 'Red' in Cape May

The Tony-winning "Red" is not only playing at Philadelphia Theatre Company, but also at the Shore. Inquirer theatre critic Howard Shapiro reviews from Cape May.

Review: 'Red' in Cape May

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Roy Steinberg as artist Mark Rothko and RJ Barnett as his assistant in "Red" at Cape May Stage.

By Howard Shapiro

In an unusual turn, the rights to a hot play --Red, which won the best-play Tony on Broadway two years ago -- were granted to not one, but two professional theater companies in the wider Philadelphia region. The play is now running at Philadelphia Theatre Company in Center City, and also opened Thursday night at the Shore, at Cape May Stage.

Seeing both is like seeing two different plays. My colleague Toby Zinman has already chronicled the virtues of Red at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, where Stephen Rowe plays the late, tormented painter Mark Rothko and Haley Joel Osment, his young assistant. Zinman notes the way John Logan's play covers "a good deal about art and art history and creative passion and the crass spectre of commerce that looms over the high-end art market."

Rothko, the king of abstract expressionism, was well-versed on all these subjects and more, and in Red, his character bursts into riffs on the subjects. Some of that talk, mostly from his assistant, is about the two sons of Zeus -- Apollo and Dionysus -- and the tension between them that spills into life.  Apollo respresents the intellect, the straight and narrow of logic, and Dionysus stands for wine, song, and wild times. (Theater, too, of which he was the god.)

The curious coincidence of all this talk is that in Philadelphia, the production of "Red" is Apollo. In Cape May, it's Dionysus. Philadelphia Theatre Company's Red is a thoughful, striking take on the many facets of making, looking at and selling art. In Cape May, the production of Red gives us a very different Rothko and his assistant, and a different sensibility.

Rothko is played in Cape May by Roy Steinberg, the up-and-coming theater company's artistic director. Rothko's assistant is played by RJ Barnett. This is a visceral Red all the way, from the first lines, when Steinberg bares Rothko's megalomania instantly, as if he were unveiling a new and much-awaited painting. He is both ferocious and a teddybear, and dangerous to deal with, too: a powderkeg and everyone around him, a flame.

Into his studio comes the new assistant, and the interpretation Barnett gives him is a kid who knows when to keep his own counsel, but doesn't  -- at least not always. Steinberg is a passionate Rothko; Barnett is a challenging young aide.  Chris Dolman stages this Red as a sort of combat play, for Steinberg's Rothko is always ready for a fight. "At least he gets the joke," says the assistant of Andy Warhol's rise onto the walls of museums. Steinberg's Rothko gets the joke, too; even as he rants his way through life, he does so with a little bit of a wink. 

Rothko's studio -- also different here from Philadelphia or Broadway, because the Cape May stage recedes more rapidly to a back wall -- is an apt mess, nicely designed by Shawn Fisher, whose mood-changing lighting draws a bit too much attention to itself. Dennis Zaicevs' excellent sound is important to the play, because of Rothko's habit of painting with classical music in the background.

Which Red do I prefer, Apollo or Dionysus? As in life, I don't want a middle ground. I want them each. And from each of them, I have received different experiences and insights, from two productions that employ the exact same words. That's one of gifts, and part of the magic, of a good story in the hands of different storytellers. 

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at, 215-854-5727, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,

Red: At Cape May Stage, Bank and Lafayette Streets, in Cape May, N.J., through Nov. 19. Tickets: $15-$35. Information: 609-884-1341 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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