BENNINGTON — My associates and friends throughout the world of visual and performing arts often express surprise when they learn that once, in a faraway time and place, I was a soldier. My response to this reaction?
"Artists and soldiers are life's last true romantics; they have far more uniting them than what meets the eye, and societal stereotypes."
To be clear, I'd never consider that clearing Ramadi of hostiles was the same as a day in the studio or on stage, because it's most emphatically not. Still, the parallels between the two are far more subtle, yet on grand display in Oldcastle Theatre Company's currently running production of John Logan's popular play, "Red."
The show, which earned the 2010 Tony for Best Play, is directed by Oldcastle's producing artistic director and co-founder Eric Peterson, who knows the actors on stage very well from past work, and is masterful at getting the most from them.
The story takes us to the late-1950s New York City studio of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (Peter Langstaff), who hires a new assistant Ken (Brendan McGrady), an aspiring young artist.
Rothko, while examining a new painting, asks Ken: "What do you see?"
The answer launches both players and the audience on a journey of self-discovery, traversing the visceral bridges of both personal and professional values.
Rothko, who during his life was known as an iconoclastic curmudgeon, had received a hefty commission to provide paintings to grace the walls of the (very exclusive) Four Seasons restaurant.
Meanwhile, Ken, whose own ghosts haunt him, looks to Rothko for life guidance, yet ironically is the one who has to remind the older artist exactly where the former came from and what he has always stood for.
The common thread to this duo? The ubiquity of red paint whose tone comes through to everyone in the theatre - except Rothko.
Longtime Oldcastle favorite Langstaff - an excellent casting by Peterson - not only delivered the proverbial goods, but was physically believable as the cantankerous Rothko. For perspective: In the original 2009 production at London's Donmar Warehouse, Alfred Molina was a doppelganger for Rothko, right down to the round, binocular-like horn-rimmed glasses, and shining bald globe. Langstaff takes a different, yet still stunning, approach.
More than anything, (and opening night line jitters to the side) Langstaff placed a stranglehold on how gruff and narcissistic Rothko was in real life. It was difficult to get a nod from Langstaff's Rothko on anything that mattered, particularly when it had to do with the creative process.
As such, and even in his own uniquely understated way, Langstaff offered up a deportment so ornery that no one would fault audience members for cringing when he looked their way through the fourth wall. I know I did.
Young yet chiseled, McGrady was a perfect contrast and complement to Langstaff's mature irascibility; he was positive but not a lightweight, and left his Ken room to grow as the story moved on.
Most notably, McGrady nearly stole the show when delivering the play's pivotal monologue with a perfect dose of passionate frustration and derision, reminding us that Ken, even when pushed to the brink, was still no Rothko.
Rather, Ken believed in his art and in the clarity of its ethics. And by holding that line, McGrady had us silently rooting for his breakthrough, whether for his own future, or against Rothko's pigheadedness.
The production ran a crisp 84 minutes with no intermission.
Wm. John Auperlee's set was a captivatingly dreamlike portrayal of Rothko's 222 Bowery studio, which enhanced the credence of Logan's brilliant script, buttressed by a brilliant array of workbench detritus. Costumes by Ursula McCarty were adroitly rendered, right down to the period detail of Rothko's attire - and the paint stains on his pants, a nice touch.
Cory Wheat's sound followed a parallel for temporal accuracy, with Chet Baker's trumpet providing the punctuation, and the music during the canvas painting scene booming with the flow of the actors' bodies. Also, David V. Groupe's excellent lighting offered up haunting resonance - and perfect lack of brightness when needed - in the battle with natural light for which Rothko was so well-known.
Finally, Gary Allan Poe's stage management remained at is expected excellence, with the show flowing start to finish sans glitches.
There is much backstory to this play, none of which will fit in this modest space. All of Rothko's life as an artist came back to the play's opening salvo: "What do you see?"
What the audience will see is a superb performance wrapped in the harsh reality of one man's seemingly endless conflict with his life, his art, and ultimately his own demons.
That word, "conflict," is operative, cradling something past the known "conviction vs. commercialism" analysis common to productions of "Red."
Its underpinnings are built with a tumultuous inner struggle: It's the storm found in every combatant who must wrestle with fear, guilt and shame. And make no mistake: we find it embodied in Langstaff's Rothko while he grapples with the (unspoken) question searing deep in his gut: "What matters more? Beauty or brushstroke?"
This makes "Red" a civil war of the senses, and Rothko's soldier in both victory and defeat is the centerpiece.
While nowhere the same as on a real battlefield, this is the kind of skirmish audience members will find familiar to the defining moments of their own lives, and thus calls for a deployment to Oldcastle's seats - to get a closer view from the trenches.
"Red" will run through June 23 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St., Bennington. Info and tickets: oldcastletheatre.org or 802-447-0564.
Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn. (ATCA). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @TellyHalkias