Riverside Theatre opened its 34th season on Friday night with John Logan's "Red."

The thrilling production augers well not only for this season of performances but for the future of the organization. Sam Osheroff, who will assume artistic director responsibilities next season, directs "Red," and the result is powerful, affecting theater.

"Red" takes us inside the New York studio of Mark Rothko, a master of abstract expressionism, during a two year period in the late 1950s as he works on a series of murals commissioned for the new Four Seasons restaurant. Rothko's struggles to create art of significance serve as the undercoat onto which the play's dramatic arc is painted.

Jim Van Valen portrays Rothko, while Christopher Peltier plays Ken, a young, aspiring painter who serves as the churlish artist's assistance. While the play features just these two characters, Rothko's paintings, though never seen onstage, are an abiding third presence in the room.

Van Valen and Peltier offer up staggering performances as two men locked in an ongoing passionate debate about the nature and purposes of art. "Red" is a play of ideas rather than action, and Rothko and his assistant spar about art history and philosophy, the desirability of chasing the zeitgeist versus pursuing permanence, the efficacy of beauty in a troubled world, the demands of worthiness and compassion, the commodification of art, the inevitable shifts in artistic movements, and more.

As Osheroff pointed out in the post-performance conversation, the play's sustained debate might make for boring theater if handled poorly. But the director and his actors fully exploit the play's dynamics, perfectly shaping the crescendos and diminuendos of the argument. Van Valen is nothing short of brilliant as his Rothko rages and worries, waging an internal war against both his own towering ego and his devastating feelings of inadequacy. Peltier's performance is the equal of Van Valen's as he brings to life a man whose life and artistic endeavors are tinged with tragedy and who develops the courage to challenge his mentor.

Kevin Dudley's set, which takes advantage of the full width and depth and the Riverside Theatre stage, is a believable artist's studio that also allows the actors to create or lessen space between them in keeping with the flow of the conversation. Issues of light and sound are central to the play, and David Thayer's lighting design and Offerman's sound design - which includes a powerful selection of music he chose to waft from Rothko's record player - fully exploit those themes. Osean Perez's costumes are true to the period and aid in the transformation of Van Valen into a convincing double of Rothko. Osheroff's own time as an artist's assistant and the counsel of artist Christian Aanestad clearly served the production well.

Each brushstroke of "Red" is perfectly executed. This exploration of one man's quest to create masterpieces is masterful theater.


WHAT: 'Red'

WHERE: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 28

COST: $28 to $30 adults, $18 youth, $20 student rush.

EXTRA: Post-performance talk-backs will be held Sept. 12.

VIEW Rothko's work:

The University of Iowa Museum of Art has the three original Rothko's from their collection on display at the Iowa Memorial Union, coinciding with Riverside's play "Red."