"Make something new," the paint-splattered abstract expressionist Mark Rothko commands his assistant Ken in the Tony Award winning play RED...
Director Cynthia Levin must have been listening, because in her fine production of John Logan‘s new work (now through October 2 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main) she’s created a new star on the KC scene: Sam Cordes, the terrific young actor who plays Rothko’s assistant.
If the name Cordes rings a bell, it should. Sam is the off-spring of two of our town’s finest theater artists. Dad Scott Cordes is a versatile actor, as comfortable in Shakespearean threads as he is cracking wise onstage between dinner and dessert at the New Theatre Restaurant. Mom Lisa Cordes is a highly-regarded playwright and theater provocateur– her work at the Living Room and other boho spots around town is legendary.
So it should be no surprise that Sam’s got the old theater bug; but where he takes it is another thing entirely. I enjoyed his earlier turn in the Unicorn’s political melodrama FARRAGUT NORTH and was surprised to hear him sing so well in Musical Theatre Heritage’s GYPSY. Good work, to be sure. But in RED, slopping paint around and giving Jim Birdsall‘s Rothko as good as he gets, Sam really makes a (pun intended) splash.
This is a play of big egos and bigger ideas.
Birdsall’s Rothko sucks the air out of the room, by turns menacing, dismissive and pitiable. Mark Rothko was an important artist in mid-career crisis– he and his contemporaries (Newman, Pollack, deKooning) were losing ground to Pop Artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. As RED opens, Rothko is suffering from "painters block." Into this maelstrom of anxiety wanders Ken/Sam, there to mix paints, stretch canvases and take alot of shit.
One of our finest serious actors, Birdsall lumbers around the stage, inveighing against commerce and public tastes, as he prepares to sell out to those very same elements. It would be easy to get lost on that stage with Birdsall. But Ken turns the tables on Rothko, throwing his hypocrises right back at him. It’s thrilling work to watch, thanks to the skills Birdsall, Cordes and director Levin bring to the effort.
As usual, technical details at the Unicorn are all first rate, though I thought the slides that came on between scenes were either ill-conceived or improperly projected. Though it’s a play about art and ideas, RED offers up some great physical work. The sweaty priming of a seven foot canvas by the two men gets your heart pounding, right along with theirs.
RED reminds us why we go to the theater- to be intellectually stimulated, politically challenged and happily entertained.
Thanks to seasoned veteran Birdsall and exciting newcomer Cordes, the Unicorn’s latest offering delivers on all three. Now that’s modern art worth taking in.