Just a year ago, 477 King St. was the home to the Charleston Ballet Theater. But today, it’s a mid-century New York artist studio enclosed by darkened windows, at least for a little while longer. Its wood floors creak, and incandescent bulbs buzz from where they hang from the ceiling. There are dribbles of paint staining repurposed cans, and jars of powdered tints brighten up a shelf. PURE Theatre’s set for their production of Red, John Logan’s 2010 Tony Award-winning play, may be the best you see outside of Spoleto.
In the late 1950s, Ken (Tripp Hamilton) takes a job as Mark Rothko’s (College of Charleson professor Mark Landis) assistant as the artist prepares for the biggest commissioned mural project since the Sistine Chapel, work for the brand new Four Seasons restaurant that comes with a hefty paycheck. As the play unfolds into its five scenes, Rothko and Ken bicker about inspiration, materialism, and art movements, both old and now. As the characters rattle off big-buck names like Pollack and Picasso and Warhol, the audience is treated to the quickest art history class they’ll ever take. Rothko is the typical older intellectual, pretentious and hypocritical. Ken is young, but he’s experienced a brutal trauma, and there’s a level of intelligence there that is apparent in some of the quips he returns to Rothko’s pessimistic ranting. “Red” acts as a common theme through each of the play’s five scenes, and there’s a lot of foreboding to the color and what it means, a violence in the way it’s splattered on the floor and on Rothko’s clothing.
Landis and Hamilton, directed by Sharon Graci, are working with top-notch material, and the pace is quick enough and intriguing enough that the 90-minutes breeze by. But it’s complex material, and the art history facts swapped between Rothko and Ken isn’t the kind of stuff that just everyone knows. While Landis gives a solid performance, Hamilton’s portrayal isn’t performed with as much ease — it seems like he’s reciting from a script, not reaching into a personal wealth of knowledge. It’s unfortunate, because some of his lines (more specifically, some of his retorts), if timed right, could have had a completely different effect.
Still, this is a stimulating showing from a strong local company. The audience isn’t seated at PURE, they’re in the studio, with the actors walking among them to switch out records on the player.