In "Red," the artist Mark Rothko and his assistant, Ken, are free-associating about the color red.
For every benevolent or lovely thing that Ken utters — apples, tomatoes, roses — Rothko volleys something sinister — fire, arterial blood. It ends with "Santa Claus" ... "Satan."
In a nutshell, that is the conflict that covers the 97-minute one-act play, which opened Saturday night at the Flat Rock Playhouse Downtown.
Starring Damian Duke Domingue, in his 100th performance at the Flat Rock Playhouse, and Hendersoville native and YouTheatre alumnus Andrew Livingston, "Red" is a change of place from the lighter fare than the Playhouse has been staging at its downtown venue. The only music comes from the classical records that Rothko plays in his studio, a cavernous school-gym like space (nicely created by scenic designer Dennis Maulden). Don't listen for repartee; Neil Simon has left the building.
Even the soundtrack develops into one more skirmish in the growing battle; when Ken plays a jazz record, Rothko takes if off and replaces it with classical.
"Red" explores the moral and psychological question of art and our relationship to it. "Rothko's creative ambition vaulted him to the top of an incredibly competitive field," director Angie Flynn-McIver writes in the playbill notes, "but the conflict between his ambition and his pure passion to make his own art was never resolved."
The story starts with Rothko having received a huge commission (at $35,000 it was, the New York Times noted in its review of "Red" on Broadway, seven times the average painter's annual salary) to paint the murals that would decorate the walls of the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building in New York City in 1959.
Rothko is self-absorbed, impossible to please, deep deep deep; his creative process is to think for two hours and paint for five minutes, or not at all. In one scene, after his assistant hands him the brush he demands, he stands, frozen, a child at the edge of the high-dive board, unable to apply paint to canvas.
"Not all art has to be psycho-drama," Ken finally exclaims late in the play.
Oh, but it does, for Rothko.
Dramatic and bloody. In "Red," blood is the co-star. We first see Rothko and his assistant splattered by red, then we see red covering their hands and lower arms. By the time we see Rothko sprawled on the floor, red paint up to his armpits, we get the picture. Is he bleeding to death, intellectually? Can he not save himself? Will he not allow his loyal but increasingly exasperated assistant to save him?
"No one is good enough to own your art, or even see it," Ken tells him.
As the assistant, Livingston captures the slow-motion train wreck nature of the relationship. He has to grow in the role, initially drawn into Rothko's gravitational pull and then gradually repelled.
As Rothko, Domingue doesn't change so much as plunge deeper into his own special madness, an insulated world of his own making ("natural light is not good enough for you," Ken shouts).
"Red" is a fitting star vehicle for Domingue, who during his 20-year career on the Rock has played more "crazy German bug scientist" parts, as he put it, than he cares to recall.
Rothko is a big role, dependent on precise language, laden with depth, taut with emotion. In his 100th performance, Domingue proves that he has the range and the mastery of craft to occupy center stage.
City's Rhythm & Brews event breaks new ground
Meadows tacks toward center on immigration