There is little for the audience to take away from Red, except the anecdotal dramatization of an event inspired by Mark Rothko’s career.
Red by John Logan. Directed by Keith Stevens. Staged by the Peterborough Players, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through June 28.
By Jim Kates
The Peterborough Players begin their summer season early this year … maybe even a couple of days too early. The opening night of John Logan’s Red was a little wobbly, but we know the production will straighten itself out probably before you read this, and certainly before you get the chance to see it.
For many past years, the Players have begun their season with a one-person biographical show. It’s a custom that makes procedural and economic sense for a company setting itself up for a fast-moving season. John Logan’s Red marks a departure from this custom, but not by much. It’s not quite a one-man show, and it’s not quite biographical, but it does focus on the career of the Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), whose later real-life suicide hangs over the play without intruding into it; and it does not give much of a role to the un-surnamed Ken, who fills out the bill as the painter’s employee as well as wishful apprentice.
For five scenes of a single act, the two discourse to each other about art, talk that often only serves as a surrogate for discussing the trials and tribulations of life. The abstract colors of Rothko’s work take on symbolic significance and become the language of the play. Only in the central scene do Rothko and Ken actually begin to make art together, and only in that interaction do we learn anything at all about Ken, information which all too quickly gets shunted aside for the rest of the play. It’s an odd structure.
You don’t need to know much about the real life Rothko to follow Red, though contemporary artists’ names (fellow abstract expressionists among them) are dropped and the aesthetic arguments between him and Ken draw on other art history references as well. Rothko knows his place in the canon better than Ken knows the canon at all; the dramatic set-up is that we will learn the young man’s lessons along with him. Still, Ken is not completely ignorant and, as the defensive representative of a rising generation, he can bait the older painter well and meaningfully.
Gus Kaikkonen catches the ambiguity of Rothko’s work and his life, the dedication to form and color and theory, the sloppiness of his work, and the demands of the commercial world that he tries his best, though unsuccessfully, to screen out. (“You think this is a colossal act of self-delusion, don’t you?”) Physically, Kaikkonen’s Rothko lumbers about like poet Delmore Schwartz’s “heavy bear that goes with me”; he is in constant motion around the stage. All the script’s energy centers on him. It’s a shock when we see him sprawled and motionless, but that state doesn’t last long. And yet, this version of Rothko comes off as strangely passive — his elemental impulse is to “let the picture do its work.”
Lucas Van Engen and director Keith Stevens don’t yet know quite what to do with Ken. For much of the play, he and Rothko don’t listen to each other — they are simply talking in each other’s direction. Moreover, Ken only does a small portion of the talking and initiates very little of the action. That dynamic, in fact, contributes to much of the humor in the first scene — and much of the dramatic point in the final scene. But for too much of the play, Van Engen just seems to be standing there. When he moves quickly in the central painting scene, it’s a powerful release, just as it is when he tells us about his own life, but it doesn’t last long.
In the end, Rothko takes control of his own work and sends Ken off, presumably to find his own fulfillment. There is little for the audience to take away except the anecdotal dramatization of an event inspired by Rothko’s career, and some thoughts about the relationship between the making of art in a carefully protected studio (well created by Charlie Morgan) and the appreciation or consumption of art in a wider, messier world.
Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia. His translation of Mikhail Yeryomin: Selected Poems 1957-2009 (White Pine Press) is the winner of the second Cliff Becker Prize in Translation.