Curious Theatre brings painter Mark Rothko to life in Red
Over the past year, Curious Theatre Company has given us a first-rate production of Pulitzer winner and Tony nominee Clybourne Park; 9 Circles, the regional premiere of a deeply humane investigation into the psyche of an American soldier on trial for war crimes; and now Red, which received ecstatic reviews in both London and New York and is beautifully directed by Christy Montour-Larson. I've no idea how artistic director Chip Walton manages to snatch up these amazing scripts ahead of everyone else in town, but he definitely does.
John Logan's Red is a two-hander about painter Mark Rothko. The year is 1958, and Rothko has been commissioned to create a group of paintings for Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, to be exhibited in the Four Seasons restaurant. In the play, Rothko has hired an assistant, a young aspiring artist. Ken is suitably awed by the master, arriving in a suit and tie, desperately trying to come up with the right answers to Rothko's penetrating and often ill-tempered questions, most important among them: What does Ken see when he looks at the painting Rothko is working on?
The early part of the play is a lesson in how to look at art — or at least art like Rothko's: pulsations of color, vibrating reds balanced by floating black frame-like shapes, art that's torn from the creator's soul yet from which the creator has deliberately absented himself. Rothko personalizes his work. "Let it wrap its arms around you," he tells Ken, and, "These pictures deserve compassion." The viewer is a crucial part of the painting for Rothko; it's not enough to passively take in what's on display: "They need the viewer.... They change.... Do these pictures still pulse when they're alone?"
What we're getting is more than a fascinating lecture. It is also a glimpse into the psyche of an obsessed genius, a troubled human being, a solipsist for whom nothing outside his mind and art really exists.
For a long time Rothko overwhelms poor Ken, who pours coffee, cleans up, fetches Chinese food, endures rages that arise as pointlessly and unexpectedly as summer storms, considers bringing his own work to Rothko's attention but thinks better of it, and comes to understand Rothko's petty jealousies and his deepest fears — that the work is insufficient, that the black in his paintings will eventually overwhelm the red, that his time in the limelight is over and younger talents will surpass him as he surpassed those who went before — all the while keeping silent about an old and terrible grief of his own. Ken is no fool, however. He puts his finger on the precise contradiction at the heart of all of Rothko's posturing: the fact that — despite his uncompromising attitude toward art, his insistence that no one is really fit to understand his work — he still wants money and recognition as much as any lesser mortal. Why else would he have agreed to hang his precious paintings in a venue where they will be ignored, insincerely praised, patronized? Ken not only sees and understands; he soaks up what Rothko has to teach. In a pivotal scene, the two men prime a canvas together, ducking and weaving around each other and eventually moving into perfect sync to slather on the undercoat with joyous abandon.
Finally, Ken calls Rothko on his narcissism and suggests that his portentous, heavy-spirited work isn't the only valid form of art. "Sometimes," he says, "you just want a fucking still life."
You're half afraid Logan is going to sentimentalize his project, have Rothko soften and become fatherly, but the single gesture that indicates he has at last seen his assistant as a living being separate from himself is an ambiguous one. Nor does Logan directly signal Rothko's tragic suicide a decade later, though there is a silent and heart-chilling image that seems to foreshadow it.
Like Rothko's paintings, Red makes strong demands on the viewer and repays them in full. Larry Hecht is a hectoring, angry, petulant and passionate Rothko, sometimes larger than life, sometimes seeming just a regular kvetchy middle-aged Jewish guy. The self-effacing innocence Ben Bonenfant brings to the role of Ken makes the entire production sing, and the moment when he finds his voice is pure exhilaration.
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