Rothko, king of abstract expressionism, was well-versed on these subjects and more, and Red is full of riffs on them all. Some of that talk - mostly from his assistant, Ken - is about the two sons of Zeus, Apollo and Dionysus, and the tension between them that spills into life. Apollo represents the intellect, the straight-and-narrow of reason, and Dionysus stands for wine, song, and wild times. (Theater, too, of which he was the god.)
The curious coincidence of all this talk is that in Philadelphia, the production of Red is Apollonian; in Cape May, it's Dionysian. Philadelphia Theatre Company's play is a striking, thoughtful take on the many facets of making, viewing, and selling art. Cape May's Red gives us a very different Rothko and Ken, and a different sensibility.
In the latter, Rothko is played by Roy Steinberg, the up-and-coming theater company's artistic director, and Ken by RJ Barnett. It's visceral all the way, from the first lines, when Steinberg bares Rothko's megalomania instantly, as if he were unveiling a new and much-anticipated painting. He is both ferocious and a teddy bear, and dangerous to deal with, too: a powder keg, with everyone around him a flame.
Into his studio comes the new assistant, and the interpretation Barnett gives him is that of a kid who knows when to keep his own counsel but doesn't - at least not always. Steinberg is a passionate Rothko; Barnett is a challenging young aide. Chris Dolman stages it as a sort of combat play - Steinberg's Rothko is always up for a fight. "At least he gets the joke," says Ken of Andy Warhol's rise onto the walls of museums. Steinberg's Rothko gets the joke, too; even as he rants his way through life, he does so with a bit of a wink.
Rothko's studio - also different here from Philadelphia or Broadway, because the Cape May stage recedes more rapidly to a back wall - is an apt mess, nicely designed by Shawn Fisher, whose mood-changing lighting draws a bit too much attention to itself. Dennis Zaitsev's excellent sound is important to the play because of Rothko's habit of painting with classical music in the background.
Which Red do I prefer, Apollo's or Dionysus'? As in life, I don't want a middle ground, I want both. And from each - from the exact same words - I received different experiences and insights. That's one of the gifts, and part of the magic, of a good story in the hands of different storytellers.
Through Nov. 19 at Cape May Stage, Bank and Lafayette Streets, Cape May, N.J.
Information: 609-884-1341 or www.capemaystage.com.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter.