‘Red’ dramatizes raging artist Mark Rothko’s inner turmoil

photo by Len Villano

From the review by Mike Fischer, Special to the Journal Sentinel, Published 4:00 p.m. CT June 30, 2017 | Updated 4:00 p.m. CT June 30, 2017

Two guys standing around for 90 minutes and talking about art.  That’s a play?

Yeah it is, every bit as much as Mark Rothko’s multiform rectangles of color are great paintings.  Rothko and his assistant talk a lot about those paintings as well as art and culture generally in playwright John Logan’s “Red.” 

“Red” won the 2010 Tony Award as best new play; under Robert Boles’ direction, it’s now receiving a top-tier production from Sturgeon Bay’s Third Avenue Playhouse that shows us why.

True to the man it explores, “Red” revolves around a great contradiction: It’s set during the two years in the late 1950s in which this political lefty was being paid $35,000 – Logan calls it “two  million dollars,” in today’s money – to paint a series of murals for the Seagram Building’s luxury Four Seasons restaurant, where the sort of rich people Rothko loved to hate would be those viewing his art.

As the play begins, the paint-spattered Drew Brhel who embodies Rothko here – wearing glasses and as rumpled and pasty as the original – is staring intently at one of those murals, which we’re to understand hangs before him on the invisible fourth wall as he gazes out at us. Classical music from Rothko’s phonograph fills the room, as it periodically will throughout the show.

“What do you see?,” Brhel asks Ken (Matt Frye), the stiff, suit-wearing assistant who has entered Rothko’s studio for the first time.  “Do you like it?,” he asks.

It’s soon clear that while he himself is an aspiring artist, Ken at this point notices little, even if he’s happy to say he likes what sees.

“Of course you like it,” Rothko sneers.  “Everyone likes everything nowadays.”  And we’re off, listening to the first of many impassioned riffs in which Rothko makes his compelling case for a world in which we must approach art and life by aspiring to be serious about both. 

 Much like Rothko himself – a brilliant man whom contemporaries described as “spellbinding” despite his homely and dumpy appearance – Brhel commands our attention and respect even when he seems to be bullying and bellowing. 

Brhel lets us see that when Rothko lashes out at the world, it’s because he’s scared he doesn’t matter; he rejects others so they can’t reject him first.  This isn’t a man who cares too little. It’s a man who cares all too much, about others as well as about art.  The painter who would later kill himself is raging at the dying of the light; as he admits to Ken, he’s terrified that the world of color and all his reds will be swallowed by the encroaching black.

With this titan sucking oxygen from the room, it’s a wonder Ken doesn’t disappear as well; Logan’s script gives him a melodramatic and unnecessary backstory, delivered in one gulp, to make him matter more. 

Logan needn’t have bothered; Frye doesn’t require such help as he persuasively traces an arc from callow lump to opinionated and confident young artist.  Increasingly willing to challenge the great man for whom he works, Ken becomes that part of the perpetually self-doubting Rothko who was himself constantly castigating Rothko.

That move creates drama; it’s also true to what’s dramatic about Rothko’s paintings. “Look at the tension between the blocks of color,” Rothko implores Ken.  “They abut each other on the actual canvas . . . They’re not dead because they’re not static.”

Ditto this production. 

The relation between Brhel and Frye isn’t a black-and-white study in contrast.  It’s a continually moving, dialectical interplay reflecting the contradictions within all of us, struggling to preserve a sense of color and light, method and meaning in a world where darkness always lurks at the edge of the canvas, biding its time.

“Red” continues through July 22 at Third Avenue Playhouse, 239 N. 3rd Avenue in Sturgeon Bay.  For tickets, visit thirdavenueplayhouse.com/.  Read more about this production at Tap Milwaukee.com.

PROGRAM NOTES

Rothko and Drama: Rothko wanted to be an actor before he decided to became a painter, and he continually thought of his art in theatrical terms.  “I think of my pictures as dramas,” he wrote in his essay “The Romantics Were Prompted.”  “The shapes of the pictures are the performers,” he continued. “They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment.” 

It’s a great description of what it’s like to sit before a late Rothko and absorb the interplay of its blocks of color, distinguishable even as they bleed into each other.  It’s also an apt description of “Red” as painted in this production, in which we spend time learning what these two men share, even as we never lose sight of their differences. 

No wonder that one of Ken’s early epiphanies involves the realization that Rothko’s paintings are like a play. This production of “Red” is like a Rothko painting: for all its talk, it’s never static.  It shimmers. And it moves, emotionally as well as physically. “The more you look at them the more they move,” Rothko said of his blocks of color. As this play and production continue on through the two years being covered here, one feels the same way about Rothko, Ken and their relationship together on the “canvas” created by TAP on its stage in this production.

Rothko and the Culture of Consumption: Rothko had been under the impression that his murals would hang in the lobby of the Seagram Building; upon learning that they were destined for the Four Seasons restaurant instead, he returned his commission and held onto the paintings (lucky us: they’d wind up in truly public spaces at London’s Tate Modern, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and Japan’s Kawamura Memorial Museum).                                                                                        

In “Red,” Rothko believes from the beginning that his murals are destined for the Four Seasons; he pulls the plug here after going to eat there, where he feels underdressed and out of place amid what he memorably describes in the play as a gnashing and snarling of animals, gorging on overpriced food like “predators.”  One can only imagine what Rothko would have made of our own baroque moment, in which food criticism has been elevated to high art while traditional arts criticism does a slow disappearing act.  Rothko didn’t just foresee social media’s time-sucking cultural wasteland, in which mindless grazing threatens to replace serious reading.  He also foresaw a cultural moment in which we’ve become more interested in stuffing our faces than feeding our minds.

Rothko and Mozart’s “Requiem”: Among the most dramatic moments in Logan’s script involves Rothko and Ken prepping a blank canvas with a base layer of red; while there’s no words spoken during the two minutes in which this vignette unfolds, Logan’s stage directions call for accompaniment by “spirited classical music.”  Boles and sound designer Logan Thomas have opted for the dramatic opening to Mozart’s “Requiem,” written during the year Mozart died and still unfinished at his death. 

It’s an excellent choice.  Rothko’s attempt to hold onto color – and, here, specifically to red – is his own death-defying analogue to Mozart’s late masterpiece.  One sees the same tension in James Valcq’s characteristically dramatic lighting design, in which early reds fight to hold on even as the darkness moves in.  “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend,” Rothko says to Ken.  “One day the black will swallow the red.”

A Life-Sustaining TAP: On this same weekend last summer, in a production of Lucas Hnath’s “Isaac’s Eye” that was also directed by Boles and included Brhel, Third Avenue Playhouse challenged me to rethink a play about which I’d been lukewarm after viewing a prior production at Writers Theatre in Illinois. Now TAP has done it again, challenging me to upgrade my assessment of a play about which I’d had mixed feelings when seeing it in early 2014 at Forward Theater in Madison.

This critical revision is partly a reflection of what’s happened in the world during the intervening three-plus years, in which we’ve seen an ongoing deterioration in the quality of public discourse about both art and politics, as well as the election of a man whose agenda includes further cuts to this country’s already anemic public arts funding.  But credit also goes to Boles and his actors, with attention particularly owed to Brhel, in one of the best performances I’ve seen this stage veteran give.  Brhel has never been afraid to let it all hang out in playing the unlikable side of the characters he inhabits; occasionally sneering and snide as well as contemptuous and seemingly cruel, his Rothko can come across as a first-class jerk. 

But as suggested above, Brhel lets us see why Rothko could be this way: This sensitive and vulnerable soul wasn’t so much turning his back on the world as preemptively protecting himself from a world he increasingly felt had become indifferent to him. It’s a command performance, in a play we currently need much as we need this amazing Sturgeon Bay theater company, heroically championing the ongoing value of theater in a post-literate age, much as Rothko fought to make the case for serious art in the often vapid 1950s. 

 

To read the full review in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, click here.