|Bart Guingona and Joaquin Valdes in a scene from "Red." Photo from the Facebook page of The Necessary Theater
MANILA, Philippines -- Bart Guingona may not have the physical heft brandished by Alfred Molina as the artist Mark Rothko in the Tony Award-winning play "Red."
His head shaved, his eyes behind an accountant's glasses and wearing loose shirts and chinos, Guingona actually appears small next to co-star Joaquin Valdes, a stocky young man with a tattoo on his bicep peeking out of his T-shirt.
But Guingona may be the perfect Filipino actor to play the brilliant American artist. He has always been the country's quintessential thinking actor – an intense, passionate artist and activist who becomes most alive in plays that provoke audiences on fiery topics ranging from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ("Via Dolorosa") to misogyny in Hollywood ("Hurlyburly").
While Guingona recently admitted that he also wants to be recognized for his "light" performances -- he was affecting in last year's "Next Fall" -- he definitely shines brightest in more challenging material.
When Guingona as Rothko wails “I am here to stop your heart ...I am here to make you think ...I am not here to make pretty pictures!” it rings with inner conviction.
"Red," which is being mounted locally by the aptly named group The Necessary Theater, certainly makes you think. In particular, it makes you think about the personal connection between art and artist.
Written by John Logan as a two-character play performed without intermission between Rothko and his fictional assistant Ken, it is an engaging lesson about the humanities and seeing.
From the play's first line "What do you see?" it forces the audience to look more closely, to meditate and allow the work to consume you.
And while "Red" is about Rothko's abstract expressionism, Logan could well be talking about art appreciation in general, whether literature, music or, yes, theater.
It is obvious that Guingona understands that. Particularly in "Red," Guingona is totally consumed by the character that he simply disappears onstage. And it takes getting used to. One also has to totally submit to the performance itself to realize just how powerful Logan's work is and how effective the actors are.
Although much younger, Valdes, who is an independent filmmaker, also understands. There is a reason why Eddie Redmayne won the Tony and you can see it in Valdes' understated performance as a painter looking for his own affirmation, his disillusionment with Rothko's didactic tendencies and arrogance battling with his own respect for the artist's greatness.
The frenetic dialogue between these two actors – and a wondrous wordless scene where the two prime a canvas with red paint – was enjoyable to watch such that the 90 minutes seemed to tick away so fast, and leave the audience wanting for more.
The text, while peppered with numerous intellectual references from Nietzsche, Freud and Shakespeare to Pollock, Lichtenstein and Warhol, doesn't come across as academic. You don't need a Master's degree to get it.
Similarly, Logan's text doesn't spell out what happens next after Rothko decides to return his commission to produce works for the posh Four Seasons restaurant in New York, which is the play's key plot. One doesn't need to know that, in fact, Rothko eventually committed suicide to appreciate the play's rather neat resolution in terms of the relationship between the two characters.
However, there is always that conceit that one gets a better appreciation if you do know. When Rothko discusses his fear of black enveloping red, it takes on a deeper meaning. For a play that is about seeing, Logan opts not to make it a mere show and tell but forces the audience to find "the tragedy in every stroke."
And that is what Guingona and Valdes accomplished in this play. They didn't wow the audience with theatrics and pretty pictures --although the play certainly had a gorgeous set of an artist's studio with facsimiles of Rothko's works. Instead, they encouraged us to search for what isn't easily seen.
"Red" opens tonight at the CSB-SDA Theater, 5/F College of St. Benilde School of Design and Arts located at Pablo Ocampo St., Malate, Manila. Other play dates are on Feb. 23, and March 1 and 2.