Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Elden Street Players Red

By • Jun 10th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Elden Street Players: (Info) (Web)
Industrial Strength Theater, Herndon, VA
Through June 29th
1:40, without intermission
Reviewed June 8th, 2013

John Logan’s script for Red, now being produced by the Elden Street Players, includes the prominent use of “list” sequences, notably a lengthy, fast-paced exchange between 20th century artist Mark Rothko (Michael Kharfen) and his fictional assistant Ken (Brandon Herlig) mining the possibilities of the word and color “red.” In that spirit, let us list some of the many adjectives that can describe Kharfen’s characterization: loud, opinionated, passionate, intellectually and philosophically engaged, brutal, hectoring, self-important, angry, reflective, energetic, depressed, bombastic, and pulsating (to use a word Logan often puts in Rothko’s mouth).

A brilliant teacher and mentor, even against his own inclinations and wishes, Kharfen’s Rothko gives his assistant some powerful lessons in artistic integrity and the relationship between an artist and his work. Kharfen communicates with feeling Rothko’s paternal interest in his paintings, which he treats as beings with lives of their own.

Kharfen’s physicality is constantly active; he bends at the waist, twists and turns, thrusts his head forward, almost frenetically waves his arms and punches the air with his gestures. Herlig’s body is quieter and mostly held vertical, providing a strong visual contrast between the two characters. Ken has a longer character arc than Rothko. The latter is a fully formed middle-aged man; the former is much younger, and gets to transform from a callow, deferential fellow to a man with his own ideas and own strength who is able to take on Rothko on pretty even terms in their debates as the play proceeds. Herlig handles the transition persuasively.

The two play seamlessly together verbally and physically, in a production that is superbly acted from start to finish. They share a stunning visual moment when they jointly prime a large white canvas with brownish paint, stretching high, stretching low, and frequently changing positions in what can fairly be described as choreographed movement. Each character delivers successfully a number of monologues, some of which are nearly operatic in their fluidity and range of emotion.

Apart from the acting itself, the glory of his production is its set (designed by Ian Mark Brown and dressed by Susan Garvey). Every detail of Rothko’s studio — ranks of paint cans, a work bench loaded with pigments and brushes, the old broken-down chairs, the canvasses in various stages of work, the paint drips everywhere, the wooden floor, the vestibule with its coat hooks — is lovingly realized. Mary Speed contributed several large and impressive Rothko-esque paintings of the kind that might well have been hanging in the studio in the late 1950s time frame of the play.

In a play focusing on the visual arts, the sound design (by Stan Harris) turns out to be significant. Most of the scenes feature prolonged underscoring by music of the classical era (the historical Rothko was, in fact, reportedly fond of Mozart) or opera, which serve to emphasize the artist’s commitment to form and order in his own work. In one scene, by amusing contrast, Ken puts jazz on the turntable, suggestive of the change in the arts that Ken represents, to a highly scornful reaction from Rothko. A nice feature of Ann Marie Castrigno’s lighting design is the close coordination of lighting changes with the actors’ use of light switches that are part of the set.

Red is not a plot-heavy play. The situation involves a large commission that Rothko has received to decorate a posh restaurant in a new Manhattan building. (Director Gloria DuGan makes creative use of the “fourth wall” as the space on which Rothko’s mural panels — visible to the characters but of course not to the audience — are hung.) Use of his work as decoration of a space to be used by wealthy Philistines disgusts Rothko at the same time as the attention and fee please him. But the play’s focus is on the interaction between the two characters, their debates, and their opinions about and insights into the purpose and meaning of art and the lives of artists. Without turning into an art history lecture, Logan’s script illuminates the currents and controversies of the mid-20th century New York art world.

For people interested in the art of the period, the content of the discussions between the characters is good grist for discussion. In the large rectangular shapes of Rothko’s paintings, for example, does one see simply an exploration of color and form, or, as Rothko believes, is deep passion and almost mystical meaning visible? As Rothko says at the beginning and near the end of the play, “What do you see?” To anyone interested in cracking good theater, Elden Street’s production is art worth seeing.

Director’s Note

This stunning play is a slice of life of the great American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, as imagined by John Logan. It won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2010. Rothko has received $35,000 to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building in New York; in today’s money that would be two million dollars. Rothko is brilliant, intense, angry. He dares us to view art as the purest expression of the soul; and, in particular, to view his work as his “children.” As Rothko takes on a new assistant, he is challenged to explain what art is, what the role of the artist is, and the dynamic relationship of the artist to his art. You will be surprised, as was I, by the play’s intense depiction of the art of painting and mesmerized by this exciting and convincing portrait.


  • Mark Rothko: Michael Kharfen
  • Ken: Brandon Herlig

Production Team

  • Director: Gloria DuGan
  • Asst. Director: Rebecca Lenehan
  • Producer: Lorraine Magee
  • Stage Manager: Leslie Peterson
  • Asst. Stage Managers: Michael Sherman, Christopher Smith, Revathi Murthy
  • Set Design: Ian Mark Brown
  • Set Construction/Master Carpenter: Ian Mark Brown
  • Assisted by: Franklin C. Coleman, Kimberly Crago, Richard Durkin, Tom Epps
  • Set Painting Design: Mary Speed
  • Assisted by: Brian Garrison, Katie Speed
  • Lighting Design: Ann Marie Castrigno
  • Assisted by: Franklin C. Coleman, Kimberly Crago, Richard Durkin, Tom Epps
  • Light Board Operator: Lucy Todd
  • Sound Design: Stan Harris
  • Sound Board Operators: Stan Harris, Brian Christensen, Hilary Huse
  • Set Dressing and Properties: Susan d. Garvey
  • Costume Design: Judy Whelihan
  • Box Office Management: Sandra Sullivan, Richard Durkin
  • Photography: Matthew Randall
  • Playbill: Ginger Kohles

Disclaimer: Elden Street Players provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

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