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
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

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 hshapiro@phillynews.com, 215-854-5727, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
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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 www.capemaystage.com

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