Red | 09.07 – 10.02.11

Too much of Rothko lay hidden in false bravado, pretend indifference matched with heightened anxiety about how his works would be viewed (the lighting, the room, the distance from the work a viewer must stand); and a solid disdain for anyone painting who is not named Rothko. 

 

 


Brian Dykstra as Mark Rothko and Matthew Carlson as Ken. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Red, written by John Logan and directed by Steven Woolf, opens the Repertory Theatre’s 45th season. It is a sharp one-act play that brilliantly dissects and lays bare the motivations and insecurities of 20th century artist Mark Rothko, the fleeting life of an art movement, and the delicate balance between art and commerce. Rothko, whose artistic vision blossomed and matured in the Post-War Era, watched and participated in the rise and fall of various movements. By the 1950s, the Abstract Expressionists were coming into power, particularly with the rise of Jackson Pollock, whose fame and early death made him the center of attention. Rothko, along with Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, and others, became the art world’s new center. In 1958, when the play’s two-year arc begins, Rothko is offered a commission to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the newly constructed Seagram Building. At $35,000, the commission was the largest of the time (equal to about $2.5 million today).

The play is set in Rothko’s Bowery studios, where in the opening scene we see the artist (Brian Dykstra) meeting his new assistant, Ken (Matthew Carlson). Rothko paints himself as nothing more than a self-absorbed artist, and says quite plainly that “this”—as he gestures to the paintings, the studio, and all else—“is all about him.” Ken, a young artist keen to learn from art’s man of the moment, is all too willing to stretch canvases, fetch coffee and cigarettes, and, in one quite exhilarating scene, help Rothko lay the base coat on his giant canvases. (Rothko tells him early in the play, though, “This is not painting”).

What Ken becomes as the play progresses is Rothko’s conscience and the expression of his inner fears and passion. Too much of Rothko lay hidden in false bravado, pretend indifference matched with heightened anxiety about how his works would be viewed (the lighting, the room, the distance from the work a viewer must stand); and a solid disdain for anyone painting who is not named Rothko. Through a series of beautifully written interactions. both men reveal their deep love and understanding of what makes art—not simply that which is on the canvas, but that which exists inside the painter and the patron—and also the of the momentary nature of what they do. Rothko is concerned about his place in the pantheon of art and the permanence of an artistic vision. There is a very funny, but telling moment in the play wherein Rothko rips in to the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol (whose Pop Art movement would eventually eclipse Abstract Expressionists), saying how, in a hundred years, neither will hang on a museum’s wall. Rothko’s seeming blindness to the ever-changing tide seems more defense mechanism than bluster.

Michale Ganio’s set featuring large paintings in various states of completion, scattered art supplies, and an oversized pulley system to hold the working canvas is perfectly suited to the play, offering the two actors space to work the stage. Dyskstra’s performance is well timed, perfectly capturing the focused and angry Rothko, a man who sees the world in brilliant color fighting off the encroaching black. Matthew Carlson’s Ken sometimes comes off a bit too earnest, but when he throws himself into an impassioned argument with Rothko, it is a pleasure to watch—as if his increasingly confident artistic worldview is our own.

I must admit, though, my first thought when Dykstra took the stage as Rothko in his full 1958 glory was of Ralph Kramden. And while Rothko the artist and Jackie Gleason’s indelible bus driver might be worlds apart, the connection is rather fitting. Like Kramden, Rothko covered up a lot of his insecurities with bluster and false bravado. He was perfect; the world was wrong. Yet, inside, his vision is impeccable. What the character Ken offered, then, was a little Ed Norton, who bravely pointed out the obvious: we have to present what is inside of us, and we must be true to that vision. Sure, success and the profits it brings are very nice, but are they fulfilling? Are they the black encroaching on the red? Perhaps, but it is a dance we must all do.

In the end, the student forces the master to realize what is truly important in his art, even if it is a never-ending battle between art and commerce that can never really be won, only contained.

Red is an enticing and entertaining tour through the mind of an artist and the beauty that we, as human beings, seek. | Jim Dunn

Red plays on the Rep’s Mainstage through October 2, 2011. For further information, visit www.repstl.org.

 

About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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