photo courtesy: http://www.wikiart.org/
Written by Scotty Keister
“What do you see?” Mark Rothko asks his brand new, young assistant, Ken, at the opening of John Logan’s play, Red, currently running at South Coast Repertory. This same question will be put to the audience for the next ninety minutes as Rothko lectures, rails, rants, raves, orates, harangues, insults and educates Ken. His subjects include art, Nietzsche, tragedy, cubism, pop art, Jackson Pollack, the sacred nature of paintings and the color red. It’s pretty much a one-man show with Ken standing in for the audience most of the time.
Late in his career, in 1958, when he had already become a celebrated American painter, Rothko was awarded a commission to paint a mural for the new Four Seasons restaurant within the Seagram building on Park Avenue. Rothko’s use of very large canvases to display large solid blocks of color was well established, and he intended this project as a vehicle to bring his particular slant of highly emotional, personal, and sensitive painting to a wider and wealthy populace, and to teach them something about art. This is the period wherein Red lays out its canvas. Rothko was a highly intelligent, educated man, known for writing manifestos on art, and he has a lot to say. The play is constructed as a mouthpiece for Rothko’s ideas. There is very little of what we commonly think of as dramatic structure – that is, the conflict between two characters. For most of the show Ken is a mere listener.
Fortunately for the audience, Mark Harelik as Rothko is positively on fire. Harelik, a commonly seen actor in film and TV, is practically unrecognizable here in round glasses, mustache and an unfortunately too-obvious bald-cap. Harelik commands the stage and the audience’s attention at every moment. His speeches must make up a good 80% of stage time, and I was hanging on his every word. Much of the dialog is taken directly from Rothko’s writing and it’s all worth hearing. Unfortunately, in the role for which Eddie Redmayne won a Tony, Paul David Story brings little character to Ken. He wears a sullen, pouty expression through the first half of the play and only comes to life late in the show when he finally confronts Rothko in an angry explosion of defiance that made me wish Logan had written more substance into Ken throughout. You can’t have dramatic conflict when one character does all the talking and the other just stands there.
This weakness aside, there are many terrific moments. When Rothko and Ken set out to lay a maroon foundation on a new blank canvas, it’s a swirl of bodies and paint and brushes that is breathtaking, mesmerizing and superbly orchestrated by director David Emmes. Rothko’s mortal outrage upon returning from a new exhibit of Pop Art at MOMA is a defining moment that finally triggers Ken’s angry outburst. Ken, an aspiring painter himself, defends the likes of Warhol for tearing down the old regime of abstract expressionists in the same way Rothko and his ilk took down the cubists who came before them. Art moves in cycles, and Rothko realizes his time may be up. It’s a fundamental spine to the story that creeps in late to the party, but we finally see that this man, who spent most of his life battling depression, is in the final stages of his career when his art is becoming more precious and far more personal to him. Rothko encourages his viewers to be kind and sensitive to his paintings and to treat them as though they are alive. He seeks to protect them. So why, Ken demands, does he want to hang them in a hoity-toity restaurant that caters to the same rich folk who buy paintings merely for decorating their zillion dollar homes? It’s a good question, and it’s one the play and Rothko struggle to answer. Rothko’s suicide, occurring twelve years after the time of this play, is echoed in one powerful scene here. It’s easy to see what drove him to take his own life. The internal conflicts the man fought are very much on display in Red. He created a lasting legacy of art and poured his heart and soul into each work. This show gives us an insight into how he did this and why. A pair of his paintings just recently sold in New York for $36.5 million. One could surmise, Rothko’s pictures are still carrying on his legacy.
Aside from David Emmes’ solid directing work, I need to mention Ralph Funnicello’s impressive scenic design. Rothko’s studio is brought to life in all its messy and authentic reality. Giant canvases of black, maroon and red surround the walls, and an invisible painting hung between the set and the audience is well represented by three rectangular blocks of red light perched on the lip of the stage. Tom Ruzika’s lighting design and Cricket Myers’ sound design all contribute to the set’s real life. You can almost smell the paint and the turpentine.
Red runs through February 21. You’ll learn a lot about Rothko and art and probably a lot about life if you get up close enough to let it envelop you, just the way Rothko wanted.
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