The year is 1958, and abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko sits in a chair in his New York studio, smoking a cigarette and considering the audience. Or rather an invisible canvas that hangs between us.
Aside from a coffee pot, a phonograph, and scotch, every surface is dedicated to artistic detritus. Rusty buckets, stained drop cloths, packets of pigment—even the wide wooden floor wears splatters of paint. Rothko’s iconic red-and-black works hang on the wall like a bloody landscape behind him.
Thinking is a major part of Rothko’s process, and he’s hard at work on the largest commission in the history of modern art: $35,000 of giant murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building. But when Rothko’s brand-new, 20 something apprentice Ken creeps onstage, he doesn’t get a chance to speak.
“What do you see?” Rothko demands, and his pompous inability to let a word in edgewise kicks off the unexpected Laurel-and-Hardy-eqsue humor that makes Heritage Theatre Festival’s production of Red both smart and enormously entertaining.
John Logan’s bio-drama, the 2010 Tony Award winner for best play, tells the story of a notoriously pretentious artist facing the fact that he may have sold out. The script is quick and intelligent and requires no art history training, though viewers unfamiliar with Rothko may want to Wiki his famous works before watching.
Betsy Rudelich Tucker’s wise direction means that Red entertains, never alienates, for the whole of its two-hours-sans-intermission performance. Despite the fact that it features only two actors, Heritage’s production fills the new 300-seat Ruth Caplin Theatre with energetic performances and the movement of light, music, and liquid paint. Designers R. Lee Kennedy, Richard L. Sprecker, and Tricia Emlet do more than bring this show to life; they help us believe in the meta-promise of the show. When Rothko rages at Ken “Of course you like it—how can you not like it?! Everyone likes everything nowadays.… Where’s the discernment? Where’s the arbitration that separates what I like from what I respect?” we see his eyes flash at us, peering through the fourth wall, and believe that perhaps we should be more discerning.
Tom Bloom’s scene design gives Nick Ferrucci (Ken) plenty of ways to stay intern-busy, and the talented actor physically pulses Red’s heart. As he stretches canvases, hoists frames, rearranges sawhorses and mounts and supply carts on casters to suit Rothko’s whims, Ken tethers us to the outside world, and we cheer his maturation from vague smiles to incisive declarations. His hope and idealism trump grunt work and poverty; his painful past suffers him less than the wounds that great art inflicts on his mentor.
As Rothko, Gregg Lloyd works the emotional spectrum and achieves a fine balance between tortured artist and cranky uncle. (I kept waiting for him to yell “Get off my lawn!”) His attitude is often laugh-out-loud funny, probably because we don’t spend two years cleaning his brushes and ingesting his solipsistic bombast. And we never lose sympathy for the show’s antagonist. Lloyd makes us believe that Rothko knew his worldview touched on megalomania, that his resilience of spirit, not inherent wisdom, propelled his rise to greatness.
In Red, Rothko relies on his paintings like the Wizard of Oz relies on his smokescreen; they are silent supporters of his larger-than-life passion, the manifestations of a personal mythology that can single-handedly save the world.
If you think that sounds pretentious, you’re not the only one. Ken calls Rothko out on his many hypocrisies, from demanding attention but not noticing others to lambasting Ken’s reduction of Nietzsche, then using Freudian proofs of Ken’s raison d’etre.
Despite these hilarious moments of come-uppance, Rothko continues to shake his fist at Pop Art and humor and Andy Warhol. He’s a student of World War II and primitive, child-like impulse. He equates bright colors and pixelated graphics with the superfluous indulgence of contemporary culture.
Each generation plays witness to the angst of their forebears, but there is something deep and moving about Logan’s Rothko. His dedication to tragedy is sincere. He wants to use art to blow viewers’ minds wide open, to break through “a smirking nation living under the tyranny of fine.”
“We’re not fine,” he yells, and he’s got a point, though his own life reveals another cruel master—the brilliant mind, churning, whiling away hours in search of connection that never comes. Tangling intellect and emotion, reason and passion, black and red on every canvas, something’s not fine, that much is for certain. The what can only be answered by you, the viewer, for whom these paintings, and this excellent show, will pulsate the longer you look at them.
Red, Ruth Caplin Theatre, Through July 13.