Theater Review: A Rewarding “Red”

Red is a drama about the modern artist and his place in art history: at its center, painter Mark Rothko confronts fame and the commoditization of creativity in the world of contemporary art.

Red by John Logan. Directed by David R. Gammons. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Boston MA, through February 4.

By Ian Thal

Thomas Derrah (Mark Rothko) and Karl Baker Olson (Ken) converse in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of RED. Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

Playwright John Logan’s Red, a Tony Award-winning two-hander about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, is a rich, if flawed contribution, to the theater of ideas. Set during the late 1950s, the script looks at Rothko at the height of his fame when he was laboring on his mural commission for the Four Seasons restaurant in the newly constructed Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan.

The story begins as Ken, a recent art school graduate (played by Karl Baker Olsen), is hired as a studio assistant for the curmudgeonly and loquacious Rothko, played by Thomas Derrah. What follows is a drama about the modern artist and his place in art history: at the center is Rothko’s confrontation with fame and the commoditization of creativity in the contemporary art world.

Relying on both biographies and the artist’s own writings, Logan has created a vivid, verbal portrait of Mark Rothko. His Rothko sees himself as an artist destined to stand with the masters, not just of painting but all media. The artist cites the Bible, Aeschylus, Nietzsche, Rembrandt, and compares his work to Greek temple architecture. While some who knew Rothko before his suicide in 1970 criticize this stage portrait as not showing the “generous” man they remembered, this figure is a richly layered character, cycling between philosophical and vulgar, meditative and explosive, intellectual and ravenous.

If there is a companion text to the play, it is Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, which Rothko urges Ken to read at their first meeting. This early speculative work defines the conceptual dichotomy between the Apollonian and Dionysian, an opposition that has been somewhat simplistically characterized in subsequent cultural discourse as the opposition of intellectual formalism and ecstatic expression. In truth, Nietzsche saw that in a society that divided the nature of the arts to two gods of vastly different temperaments, the great accomplishment of the Greek tragedians was to create a theatrical form that served both ritual cults at once.

In the play, Rothko presents himself as rebirthing the tragic into paint: vibrant life in different shades of red abutting the silent black of death, energy fighting against the inevitable, each containing the other. According to Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Ken’s painter hero, could not paint true tragedy because he only grasped the Dionysian.

Of course, tragedy does not sit well with commerce: Rothko enjoys his fame and commissions but despises the capitalists who pay him as well as the privileged bourgeoisie who dine at the Four Seasons. He rationalizes putting his paintings in the Four Seasons as an attack on consumerist values. Simultaneously, while Ken enthuses about the new generation of pop-artists, Rothko rages against their work because it is so easily suitable as decoration, saving a special dose of contempt for Roy Lichtenstein’s inferior tracings of now-classic comic book illustrators like Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, and (the still living) Joe Kubert. The irony must be apparent to the playwright, whose career as a screenwriter now includes contributions to the Star Trek and James Bond film franchises.

Rothko’s own concerns in his later period about maximizing the tragic effect of his paintings by controlling the placement, the surrounding space, surrounding activity, and even light levels (he despised both natural light and nature) eventually resulted in his returning the Seagram commission money and keeping the paintings. Fittingly, John Logan has conceived Red as an orchestral work, with lines of dialogue suggesting not just the stage business to both actors and director, but for Jeff Adelberg’s lighting design. Cristina Todesco’s scenic design recreates Rothko’s former YMCA gymnasium studio as it described in the biographies: high ceilings and pulley systems that allowed the artist to control the height at which his monumental paintings would hang. In addition, the wings are left unmasked, leaving it ambiguous as to whether the audience is viewing the shelves and equipment used by the crew or parts of Rothko’s studio.

Thomas Derrah (Mark Rothko) and Karl Baker Olson (Ken) as his assistant create art in RED. Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

However, despite the script’s rich characterization of Rothko, Ken, the studio assistant, is basically a cipher, serving to prompt Rothko to lecture on art history, his contemporaries, his predecessors in the cubist and surrealist movements, and the new movement. A scene midway through the evening provides Ken with a tragic past, but the revelation has no consequences. It is hard to discern whether Logan meant to present Ken as simply self-mythologizing, creating a tragic back story that he stops telling himself in later scenes or if he simply did not know how to follow through without derailing Rothko’s story or simply dropped the ball. This is the problem of introducing fictional characters into the biography of well-documented historical figures: unless the author is willing to substantially deviate from the historical record, the relationship lacks drama.

So while Derrah gives a virtuoso performance as Rothko, Karl Baker Olsen is left with a character whose arc goes nowhere, leading to an ending that is predictable even if one does not know Rothko’s biography. Still, despite the playwright’s inability to give both actors substantial dialogue, Derrah and Olsen, two inspired, physical actors, are a joy to watch together. Olsen favors a staccato dynamism that clips the beat, Derrah floats on the beats using Rothko’s personal tics as syncopated punctuation.

So, despite its flaws, the play is rewarding, especially in this superb production, but I must ask if the play might not have been more effective either as a one-man show or with a larger chorus of historical characters. For example, Charles Mee’s beautifully disjointed portrait of assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, Hotel Cassiopeia staged last season by Fort Point Theatre Channel.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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