“Red”, Speakeasy Stage Company’s latest offering about painter Mark Rothko, was the winner of six 2010 Tonys including best play, by John Logan. This author is no stranger to “sacred monsters”, having dealt in the past with the likes of Leopold and Loeb, Howard Hughes and Sweeney Todd. This play, like Rothko’s work, requires that an audience meet and be part of the creation. There are tragedy and drama in both. It is the story of a self-destructive, self-taught genius who in 1958, at the age of 55 (the same age at which his father died), was commissioned by former bootlegger Samuel Bronfman to provide a series of paintings for the proposed Four Seasons Restaurant in his Seagram’s Building, for the then-considerable sum of $35,000. Rothko was ambivalent from the beginning, preferring his panels to be experienced in a sort of wayside chapel, (as some of his panels would eventually be, in a spectacular installation in Houston); he hoped at least to “ruin the appetites of every SOB who ever eats in that room”, putting rich patrons in his created place, the viewers trapped.
The play, in a taut one hundred minutes, portrays this ambivalence as the painter and his newly-hired assistant begin the process, all the while commenting on the nature of art and bemoaning the approaches to painting by his contemporaries. While he hated and rejected labels, Rothko was a part of the Abstract Expressionist movement that supplanted cubism. Part of his anger lies in the knowledge that he too will eventually be supplanted. Given his self-confessed obsessive preoccupation with death (“the first ingredient in my art”) and the fact that he was to commit suicide a decade later, this could have been heavy slogging. The genius of the playwright lies in how he manages to make this reenactment of the creative process so full of caustic wit, memorable dialogue (much of it directly quoted) and mesmerizing detail, all of which Director David R. Gammons captures on his theatrical canvas. The audience is presented with a genuine train wreck of an artist, and we simply can’t take our eyes off him.
It helps that the role of the artist is in the capable hands of an actor like Thomas Derrah. His Rothko is pompous, controlling, manipulative, and opinionated in the extreme, bombastic one moment, in the next breath declaring that, in art, “silence is so accurate”. He declaims to his new assistant (played by Karl Baker Olson) that he intends to be neither his father or mentor, but before long becomes exactly that. It also helps that Olson, in the much more challenging role, is equal to the task of evolving (over a two year period) from a starstruck novice to a more assured combatant. Together these actors stretch canvases, speedily apply glaze, and paint while verbally sparring about the nature of art and the value of their contemporaries in the art world. It’s sheer joy for a theatergoer to listen to the pacing of the speech of these theatrical artists and watch them inhabit the former Bowery YMCA gym that has been transformed into Rothko’s studio (superbly rendered by Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco). The lighting by Jeff Adelberg and sound by Bill Barclay are also perfect for the piece.
This production is every bit as moving and unforgettable as the original import from London, perhaps even more so in the more intimate venue of the Wimberly Theater. The miracle of the play and its presentation here is that it never seems pedantic or pedestrian, as it might easily have become, like watching paint dry. Instead, it’s amazingly dynamic. It’s poetic justice that this work confronts, challenges and involves the audience just as Rothko’s art does.