Oliver Becker (photo credit: David Cooper)
by Edgar Governo
Many people think of Abstract Expressionism as a joke—just a collection of "random" colours or lines or shapes that could be put together by anyone, ignoring the weeks or months of deep thought and effort being put into each work by those who were part of that movement. The version of Mark Rothko we find in Red (as played by Oliver Becker) agonizes over this while in the midst of creating his Seagram Murals in the late Fifties, tortured by the idea that his patrons think of his work as nothing but a commodity without realizing any of his artistic intentions.
Playwright John Logan is no doubt intimately familiar with this classic conflict between art and commerce, as someone who has written award-winning plays like this one along with numerous commercial screenplays, including both a Star Trek feature film and the latest James Bond outing (now playing in a multiplex near you). It's all too easy to imagine Logan coming across a marked-down DVD copy of one of his movies in a video store and painfully recalling countless hours bent over a keyboard.
that means it falls into many of the clichés of a two-hander in terms of character and structure
Red is a classic two-hander, with only the real-life Rothko and his fictional assistant, Ken (Jameson Matthew Parker), appearing as characters. Unfortunately, that means it falls into many of the clichés of a two-hander in terms of character and structure—the well-worn arc of the mentor and protégé, with the latter going from an eager student to someone ready to challenge his teacher and strike out on his own. In this sense, the play often comes across as overly didactic, since there is no greater inherent character conflict between these two people and we need to be told upfront about Rothko's concerns for them to fully come across.
Becker does an excellent job as Rothko, far overshadowing Parker's performance, though perhaps this is an intentional reflection of the former's overpowering personality at this point in his career. Much like Orson Welles in RKO 281, Logan's television film about the making ofCitizen Kane, Rothko is consumed with contempt for the simpletons around him who Just Don't Get It even as he depends on them for his continued livelihood, and the play succeeds in conveying how this anger and fear is both personal and inevitable. On some level, Rothko knows that his work is on a spectrum of art history playing out before the public, where his contemporaries took over from the Cubists and his own movement is soon to be overtaken by the Pop Art of the New York art scene in the Sixties.
the red of life and passion is the dominant visual motif as it contrasts with the black of death and nothingness
There are also some recurring images throughout that bring these themes forward more effectively than the dialogue alone, thanks to the direction of Michael Shamata and set design by Peter Hartwell. As the title implies, the red of life and passion is the dominant visual motif as it contrasts with the black of death and nothingness, reflecting Rothko's fear that "the black will swallow the red" in his own life and work. This extends beyond the onstage recreations of Rothko's paintings—including a memorable dialogue-free sequence where the two leads cover a large canvas in red paint as soaring music plays—into details like the contrast of a red label on a black vinyl record or the red gels that suffuse the lighting of the set.
At one point, Ken engages in some metafictional commentary by noting that without the right kind of lighting, a theatre set becomes nothing but a set of fake walls. The character demonstrates this point by briefly bringing up the lights and exposing the artifice of what the audience is watching, highlighting how all art requires an audience not just to be exposed to it but to participate in it. Theatrical performances have little purpose if no one is there to watch them and imbue them with meaning, and Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko simply made that point more blatant in their chosen medium. As someone who changed his name from the original Marcus Rothkowitz, Rothko attempted to make his own canvas blank and ignore the layers that had been painted before, but as he stands alone in his studio and the lights come down, the existing black cannot be ignored.
Red runs to November 17.