Karl Baker Olson and Tom Derrah

The best show onstage in Boston right now stars the dizzyingly talented Thomas Derrah as abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko in RED at the SpeakEasy Stage Company.  Don’t worry if you know nothing about painting; the 2010 Tony Award-winning show by John Logan and flawlessly directed by David R. Gammons is an extraordinarily lucid tutorial on how to view abstract art.  Like HAMLET, it opens with one simple, potent question: WHAT DO YOU SEE?

Derrah as Rothko asks the question while standing still, center stage, staring out at the audience; we quickly apprehend that he is not looking at us. By some alchemy, the actor has conjured up Rothko’s latest canvas, and is querying the new young assistant (Karl Baker Olson) he has just engaged.

We too are engaged. I hung onto my seat while in the next five minutes, the entire landscape of the canvas, the play, and the artist revealed itself. Rothko is about to embark on his most lucrative, and perhaps most famous commission: wall murals for the new Four Seasons Restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building–and it’s got him on edge. Is he selling out?

As he prepares to send these works out into the world, Rothko is deeply afraid– will his paintings be appreciated as living, breathing works “radiating their own effulgence,” or will they be slaughtered by unseeing, uncaring diners more interested in savoring the fois gras? He also fears for his artistic life– will his way of “seeing” be murdered– as he has murdered the generation of cubists before him?

As he grills Ken–himself a painter with a bloody past–Rothko reveals his unsparing, vulnerable, tormented soul.  He dares Ken to be sensitive, yet uncompromising, to enter into the huge, freshly painted blocks of red and brown before him, pulsing between life and death, “tragedy in every brush stroke.” He dares Ken to be compassionate, to “be a human being.” Derrah deftly handles the fulmination of words, the frightening eruptions of temper, while seamlessly ferreting out the humor, and  the insecurity behind the arrogance. It’s a towering performance by a master, and we never see hm work.

As Ken, Olson is perfect–youthfully respectful–and nervy. When he dares suggest Rothko apply RED to the canvas, the artist sees red, and splatters the shocked but intrepid assistant with the color. Ken looks a bloody mess but he will survive, and we understand– art is life and death. The set is an evocative beauty–a working studio rimmed with smudged, multipaned rectangular windows, like canvases within canvases, filtering out the natural light; as the drama intensifies, the set glows warm and red. The last image is a cool beauty.

SEE “RED”– it’ll get your blood up. At the SpeakEasy Stage Company through February 4!