Theatre Review: “What Do You See?”


RED, written by John Logan; produced by Unicorn Theatre: seen September 20, 2011

I’ve never really gotten modern art.

I’m not one of those people who don’t think it is art, however. Being married to someone who occasionally does visual art (see his portfolio here) and having been president of the Platte County Arts Council for three years and helping run the Platte County Arts at Zona Rosa arts festival (now called the Zona Rosa Arts Festival) which goes up every September, I feel if the artist calls it art and had art as an intention when creating the piece, it is art. I just – for the most part – don’t get much out of it personally.

But art – like beauty – is in the eye of the beholder, and that is (at least to me) the main point behind RED, the 2010 Tony Award winner for best play by John Logan. The story is a two year span in the life of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko (played brilliantly by Jim Bridsall) as he works on a (fictitious) commission for the Four Seasons restaurant. He is accompanied by a hired assistant Ken, played a little too eagerly and wide-eyed by Sam Cordes.

The conversations between the two delve into the very definition of art, and what differences there are between artists such as Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, and even Rembrandt – and the very purpose of art. Is commercial art still art? If it’s popular, does it still have meaning? Why can’t there be art that is ‘just’ pretty and ‘happy’? And I’ve had conversations similar to this on numerous times with not only my husband but with friends and internet communities.

Jim Birdsall and Sam Cordes. Photo by Cynthia Levin and courtesy of Unicorn Theatre
Jim Birdsall and Sam Cordes. Photo by Cynthia Levin and courtesy of Unicorn Theatre

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m not a big fan of ‘pretentious’ art – what I nickname “Art” (with the capital A intentional). I understand the desire to add deeper meaning, and do feel there’s a difference between “Art” and Rothko’s mission of artwork that will ‘rip out your guts and expose your soul’. (Heck, anyone who knows my love of Joss Whedon works knows I have a special place in my heart for those pieces that make you speechless in the hurt and pain.)

But I also feel that the added pretension – of Theatre as well – is the very reason why so many people who don’t ‘get’ art as a whole are turned off on it and think art is frivolous to society (i.e., why spend money supporting artists when we have “real” problems like poverty, disease, etc.) and think there should be no public funding. In fact, that’s the primary reason I’m such a strong supporter (and this year’s coordinator) of Free Night of Theater – to show people who think theatre is Theatre and don’t realize that there is every type of options available.

But this is a far longer conversation than I can have in this review, and it’s not prevalent to this show outside of showing that this piece does make you think about the very definition of art. So … moving on.

As mentioned, Jim Birdsall does a fine job as Mark Rothko (word choice intentional, as he goes on a rant worthy of George Carlin about the overuse of the word ‘fine’). He was the role of Rothko. Sam Cordes, however, as I mentioned, seemed a little too earnest and eager in his portrayal, and seemed distant in most of the places where he could have shined. Since Rothko wants artwork that exposes the soul, I felt especially distant from him as Cordes does the monologue about finding his murdered parents and seeing how the blood became darker. Having had a friend who committed suicide (and helping clean up the apartment after), I had a hard time believing Cordes’ portrayal. It wasn’t that he was bad in the role – it’s just that I felt he wasn’t all there.

The set was – as usual – fabulous, with paint on the floor and a running sink in the corner that made my inner techie squee. Again, being married to someone who does visual art (although not as a profession), there were little touches that made this a true artist studio. Also, the use of smell as an added element really helped: not only the smell of paint which gave the impression the crew had just finished painting the set that day, but also the use of paint thinner during a crucial scene near the end helped add to that suspension of disbelief required at any performance.

Like modern art, RED as a piece of drama is not something I really am sure I understood. Was the point of Rothko’s various discussions and rants to show Ken that there is no one definition of art? Or was it the ravings of an artist suffering from depression who just didn’t know what he thought either and was working it out for himself? However, it got me thinking – and maybe that in itself was the point of it.

RED runs until October 2, and more information can be found at

This review has been posted to the KC Stage review system. Agree or disagree? You can rate / review this show yourself (requires free registration) by going to KC Stage.