And playwright John Logan’s Red depicting a critical time in Rothko’s life is a tour-de-force on all levels, conceptual, artistic, and technical.

 

Director Steven Woolf has outdone himself in conducting this pas de deux between Rothko (nee Marcus Rothkowitz born in Russia, 1903) played by Brian Dykstra and his assistant, “Ken” (Matthew Carlson). It is 1958 and ’59, and Rothko has hired Ken to execute a project he has accepted from the Seagram family to provide a permanent display of his work in the Four Seasons Restaurant. The upscale establishment has recently opened in the company’s New York City office building  designed by famed architects  Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson whom Rothko greatly respects. He has been offered $35,000 for 9 oversized paintings, the largest commission ever paid an artist to that date. Its equivalent today would be over $2 million. As the play unfolds, Rothko’s mixed feelings about this job are expressed and dissected. On the one hand, he believes the promised paycheck validates him as an artist in the public sphere. On the other, the commercialism of the venture is appalling to his artistic soul. And then there’s Ken.

 

Ken is an aspiring artist himself, but Rothko warns him up front that he is not interested in being a teacher to the younger man and Ken will not be making actual art, just doing the grunt work for the master. In his mid-50s when the action takes place, Rothko is at that critical juncture in a career where he is both at the top of his creative game but also fending off the young Turks like Warhol, Lichtenstein, Stella and others who are crawling up his back with their own newer modes of expression. In other words, by the time Rothko has become THE Rothko, he is in danger of being rendered obsolete. But he’s not leaving the canvas without a struggle, and Ken is cast in the role of whipping boy and target for his anger, as well as his helper.

 

Ken, however, isn’t intimated and even ventures to joke with the artist, but that bit of cheek doesn’t score him any points with the curmudgeon. Rothko is appalled at Ken’s lack of education in literature, philosophy and history. He believes, and rightfully so, that to have the kind of sensibility needed to create great paintings, one’s mind must be exercised and disciplined by the great writers and thinkers in other fields. When Ken does read a bit of Nietzsche, the theory of the opposition and apposition of Apollo and Dionysus leads him to posit a comparison between Rothko and Jackson Pollock that Rothko disdains, but it later becomes clear that he believes Ken’s statements to be true. He also believes that Pollock killed himself, foreshadowing Rothko’s own eventual suicide, perhaps, as does a scene in the play.

 

Both actors give towering performances. This is a relatively short (about 90 minutes) play, but I’d be interested in the word count because they say a lot of them. Most of the lines involve the two men arguing or giving long speeches. Rothko’s tend to pretentiousness, but Dykstra delivers them from tedium by sheer force of talent. (As Logan is using bits and pieces of Rothko’s statements in lectures and so on to create the lines, this potential problem isn’t surprising.) Ken’s solos exemplify the idealism of youth without the tempering of the knowledge of his own mortality and the sense of irony with which Rothko’s life experience has imbued him. Ken reveres Pollock and Picasso, but he also admires the “new kids on the block” and revels in the emergence of pop art, which Rothko finds an abomination.

 

Ken’s character is apparently based on Rothko’s assistant Dan Rice, but he is fictional. And his back story creates what I consider the only serious weakness in the play. While Rothko “fears” the color black, Ken’s bête noir (if this isn’t a contradiction in terms) is white. White reminds him of snow, which he associates with an enormous trauma in his own life and the event that has shaped him (or should have—I’m really not sure it has had the kind of impact one would expect). Ken’s tale is melodramatic and creates a dissonance within the exchange between the two men. Ken also blows up over the fact that Rothko has never asked him about his current personal life. Then we realize we don’t know anything about Rothko either—is he married? (He was, twice.) Have children? (He did, two.) For him, the studio was about work and intellectual discourse, not a place to exchange pleasantries about the wife and kiddies.

 

But there is so much to enjoy here—beautiful, adult language that doesn’t pander to the audience and assumes a certain level of intellectual sophistication on the part of the hearers. The set in which Michael Ganio replicates the studio Rothko created out of an old gymnasium is brilliant. Rothko disdained natural light; in fact, he’s no fan of “nature” in any form and hates landscape art which he calls “pretty pictures” and “over mantel paintings” intended to match the sofa in patrons’ living rooms. He blocks the windows and creates artificial walls to hang his work at the proper viewing height and level of lighting to bring out the movement he sees in them. These are not paintings “[a] five-year-old could have done,”as some said, though they resemble nothing more than blocks of color to the casual observer. To Rothko, art is a living thing with feelings of its own, and he fears the commercial use of his paintings may ultimately cause them actual pain.

 

Lighting designer Phil Monat has created a brilliant light plot. The color red surrounds the set, and the space is brilliantly lit at key points, but most of the time, semi-darkness frames the action. Still, there are no pale spots, no blanks for the audience to fill in which might be distracting. Dorothy Marhsall Englis’ costumes are fitting, and Rusty Wandall orchestrates the sound with music consultant Jeffrey Richard Carter and Steven Woolf. The music is a significant part of the work, both Rothko’s and Logan’s.

Red is a glorious evening of theatre, and it was honored with several Tony Awards including Best Play for its original run at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London, 2009. The Rep is one of the first regional theatres to gain the rights to produce it in this country. On opening night, the energy on the stage, especially during a scene in which the two men cover a canvas with a particular shade of the title color, is palpable. And that energy was going right back to them from a rapt and appreciative audience. There are many humorous moments that leaven the heaviness of the discourse, and the play zips by at a dizzying but never confusing pace. This production is, in short, not to be missed.

 

Red runs at the Rep through Oct. 2, 2011. You may visit www.repstl.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM radio.

 

BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT