By Karen Isaacs
Red by is supposedly a play about Art with a capital A and about how the artist works. But it really is much more about perception and vision: What do we see? How do we see it? Why do we see it? What do we think it means?
This play by John Logan was presented first in London and then on Broadway during the 2009-10 theater season. It starred Alfred Molina and an unknown Eddie Redmayne, winning the Tony for best play with Redmayne winning a Tony as Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play.
The play opens with the artist Mark Rothko asking Ken, a young student, “what do you see?’ as they both look out over the audience, supposedly at a painting. That sets the theme of the piece.
Rothko was one of the most prominent abstract expressionist along with Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning. When the play takes place, 1958-59, he is in his later period where he focuses on blurred blocks of color and canvases of vertical design. He has said that he wants the viewer to be enveloped by the painting and to stand close to the large works for a sense of intimacy and awe. It was also at this time that he had a commission from Seagram to provide murals for the about-to-be opened restaurant, The Four Seasons, in the new corporate building in Manhattan designed by Phillip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe.
Artistic Director Mark Lamos has paired to plays that are ostensible about art to play in repertory with different casts. Art plays on the even days and the second, Red, plays on the odd days. Each play, Lamos points out, explores the relationship between men and art: making art, viewing art, collecting art. It also points out how art can be used as validation or a status symbol. It is interesting that each of these plays features an all-male cast, though Art is written by a female playwright.
Ken is hired as a studio assistant, running errands, fastening canvases to stretchers, preparing paint and preparing the canvases which Rothko starts with a background color. Although Ken is an aspiring painter, Rothko never asks about his art and never volunteers to look at it.
At first, Rothko talks. He is amazed that Ken is not familiar with literature and philosophy. He tells him to read Nietzsche and others; that you cannot be artist without a foundation in philosophy, history, literature.
As they continue to work together – the play takes place over 18 months or so – Ken begins
challenging Rothko’s theories of art, his dislike for the new pop artists, and his political views.
Ken tells him he is being hypocritical accepting the lucrative commission for the murals at this very expensive restaurant where the moguls of capitalism will dine while still maintaining that the work will be viewed as if in a museum. It is, Ken, says, just interior design. By the end of the play, Rothko has resigned the commission.
But underneath this play, there is not only the discussion about perception and how each of us views things so differently, but also the fear that the aging artist has not only of death but also of becoming irrelevant or overlooked. Just as the abstract expressionists were young men who disdained the conventions of their elders and redefined art, the pop artists like Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg were redefining art and rejecting the approaches of the older generations, including artists like Rothko.
In a telling moment, Rothko admits to Ken that what he fears most is that the black on his canvases will overtake the red.
Under Lamos’ fine direction, Stephen Rowe gives a stellar performance as Rothko, letting us slowly inside the man to see the fear of death emerging. Patrick Andrews as Ken goes from the admiring student to an artist willing to challenge and confront.
The scenic design by Allen Moyer creates the studio space beautifully.
Of the two plays, Art and Red, I found Red to be both the most interesting theatrically and from the standpoint of the ideas discussed; I think it also the better production. But either is an enjoyable and thought provoking theatrical experience.
Red is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport through May 29. For tickets visit westportplayhouse.org or call 888-927-7529.