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by Mary Shen Barnidge

Playwright: John Logan. At: Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: 773-728-7529; Article Link Here ; $30-$35. Runs through: March 8

"What do you see?" are the first words spoken at the start of the play. It's an important question—Mark Rothko's paintings might not look like much at first, but when exhibited under subdued lighting conditions ( as Rothko preferred ), after you stare at them for awhile, the hues begin to shimmer and glow. Viewers prone to vertigo may become light-headed and those inclined toward synesthesia may find themselves drawing near its surface as though seeking physical warmth.

Well, that's what expressionist art is supposed to do. This is why museums and galleries so often use flat illumination to diffuse the intensity of iconography reflecting emotions that are rarely gentle, and why Eric Luchen's scenic design for Redtwist Theatre's tiny auditorium ensures that no audience member has a full-frontal view of the canvases on display. These visual precautions, however, are no guarantee against the risk of aural intoxication—not when immersed in the florid language employed by author John Logan to conjure the image of an artist as fierce as his art.

What launches the crisis addressed in the play is the large fee that Rothko has just accepted for a series of canvases to decorate a posh restaurant in the Seagram's building on New York City's Fifth Avenue. Studio assistant Ken's duties encompass not only heavy-lifting chores, but providing an ear for the soliloquies and harangues that characterize his irascible boss' creative process. Topics covered therein include how the former Marcus Rothkowitz and his buddies kicked cubist butt, his reverence for Rembrandt and Caravaggio, his scorn of Warhol and Lichtenstein, and—as he contemplates the future environment of the pictures he calls his "children"—ethical misgivings over his project. You don't have to know the real-life fate of this uncompromising genius to see the darkness encroaching upon the already chiaroscuro landscape.

Wrestling with this Leviathon of a text is no small undertaking for only two actors, but Brian Parry, best known on the storefront circuit for his quietly avuncular roles, proves himself equally skilled at King Lear-style ranting and roaring, while never exceeding the limits of quarters ill-suited to operatic scale. Aaron Kirby's Ken likewise emerges a worthy adversary, conveying profound admiration for his mentor, even when it means uttering the truths from which there is no hiding. It takes 85 intermissionless minutes for Logan's conflict achieve its sadly temporary resolution, making for dialogue so densely packed in its eloquence that as swiftly as you hear it, you want to hear it again. Smart playgoers are warned to book reservations for two performances.

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