Jim DeVita Transforms in Forward’s ‘Red’

Jim DeVita Transforms in Forward’s ‘Red’
Nate Burger and a shockingly transformed Jim DeVita contemplate art and commerce in Forward Theater's 'Red.'

In the twenty-plus years he’s been acting in Spring Green and Madison, Jim DeVita has played a lot of things—kings, rakes, warriors and comic foils. I’m not sure he’s ever disappeared into a role as thoroughly as he does with Mark Rothko, the abstract expressionist painter who serves as the centerpiece of Red. From the moment DeVita strides onstage, his normally thick and lustrous hair shockingly shaved, wearing thick glasses and paint-stained clothes that look like they’ve been splattered with blood, it’s clear we’re looking at a Christian Bale-level of transformation. It’s only one of several ways DeVita throws himself into Forward Theater‘s production of John Logan’s 2010 Tony-winner (playing through February 2 in the Overture Center Playhouse). This is his first work with Forward, and with this dramatic first impression, it’s clear he’s taking it as seriously and intensely as possible.

Which makes sense, given that Rothko, an artist who, with Jackson Pollock and others, helped usher Cubism out the seventh-floor window in the 1950s, was a serious, intense man—maybe too much so. The play hinges on Rothko’s decision to accept a massive commercial commission from the Four Seasons Restaurant (a historical fact) and the debate he has with his young assistant Ken (a dramatic invention). The murals Rothko creates for the commission, all of which feature a blurry, warring geometry of red and black, will hang for eternity in an important public setting…populated by upper-class nouveau riche who view his works as nothing more than something to stick above their mantelpieces. Is the sacrifice worth the cash?

DeVita’s Rothko speaks of his fear of the black chaos in his murals eventually swallowing the vibrant red, but what he’s really talking about is hisself-absorbed need to matter and his fear of falling into irrelevance. Given that the American public’s tastes in art at the time were turning to pop comic books and the zeigeisty zip of Andy Warhol’s soup cans, his fears had foundation.

What Rothko sees as frivolous nonsense strikes at the heart of his serious, contemplative aesthetic, locked away from the world in his cramped, light-controlled studio. “I am here to make you think,” DeVita’s Rothko snaps at one point. “Not show you pretty pictures.”

At first, Nate Burger’s Ken scarcely registers as more than a set of ears to listen to Rothko’s rants, and there’s real concern that the play’s balance is going to suffer for it—Rothko needs a foil, not a sponge, to arrive at something resembling greater truth. But Ken’s like one of Rothko’s blank canvases—as the master painter exposes him to culture (in the form of Nietzsche) and his views on art’s role in culture and contemplation, Ken gains depth, complexity and confidence. By the time Ken challenges his employer’s views of art and its role in the world, he’s forceful and confident enough to pull it off, leading to the play’s most tense and dramatic moments. Burger really shows some fire.

“Who is even good enough to see your art?” Ken demands, striking at the heart of Rothko’s intellectual superiority/hypocrisy complex.

For a play about weighty issues like art and commerce, Red is leavened by a surprising amount of humor, even though its main character is far from likable. DeVita’s always been great at deadpan timing, and he delivers Rothko’s sarcastic observations expertly, eliciting plenty of laughs from the crowd. It’s a nice (and needed) break from the heavy expostion that sometimes weighs on the dialogue.

Forward’s production is brisk and efficient—there’s not a single intermission—and that’s a smart choice by Milwaukee-based director Laura Gordon, given that the entire thing takes place in the confines of Rothko’s studio, painstakingly recreated for the show. The pace gives the two men’s relationship time to simmer, breathe, and ultimately explode before things feel too stifling. By the time the men go their separate ways, Rothko’s recurring question, “What do you see?” has taken on an entirely different meaning for both, even if the answer itself—”red”— remains the same.  

For more information on Forward Theater’s production of Red, click here