Red By John Logan; directed by Robert Falls; starring Edward Gero and Patrick Andrews Jan. 20 – March 11, 2012 Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, D.C. http://www.arenastage.org
One morning, Ken, Mark Rothko’s studio assistant, comes into the studio to fulfill his daily duties of stretching and priming his employer’s canvases. When he turns on the light, he sees Rothko lying on the floor, his arms and hands dunked in buckets of red paint. Rothko sheepishly admits that he had intended to paint, and presumably he fell asleep on the floor instead. Ken brings a wet towel and cleans Rothko up.
The scene, which comes toward the end of John Logan’s script for the play “Red”, is artificial. Ken (Patrick Andrews) is a contrived character, and as far as I know, Rothko (Edward Gero) never fell asleep on the floor of his studio with his arms submerged in red paint. But the scene is a brilliant foreshadowing of the artist’s suicide, when his real assistant, Oliver Steindecker, found Rothko dead on the floor early in the morning on February 25, 1970.
It’s impossible not to connect Ken cleaning Rothko up in the play—particularly after the former had compared one of Rothko’s palette choices to dried blood—with the artist’s real life and sobering suicide. The decision to literally keep the suicide obscene and to reference it metaphorically is both classy and compassionate. It’s just one of several great decisions in the play, which depicts the end of the life and career of Rothko, born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903 in Vitebsk, the same then-Russian province that produced Marc Chagall.
At several points, Rothko directs Ken to look at his new works—the so-called Seagram Murals—which are evidently lining the fourth-wall of the theater. Ken silently stares out at the audience, and even as the impatient Rothko rushes Ken to tell him what he sees, Ken keeps pushing back and requesting more time. Sitting in the audience, it’s hard not to feel that Ken is judging both the invisible paintings and the audience. In fact, the silence that Ken temporarily achieves, coupled with the realization that the lights prevent the actor from actually seeing the audience, is arguably the most gripping part of the play.
Rothko’s paintings (the real ones, not those in the set) can be said to command silent attention—even adoration—and Ken’s silent absorption of the canvases becomes unsettling quickly, but it soon calls upon the audience to see itself through Ken’s probing eyes. Sadly, though, the rest of the play is too loud, from Rothko and Ken battling over the record player to Rothko’s incessant nagging and pontificating.
To be fair, Rothko is a difficult artist to interpret. On the one hand, his paintings—hovering clouds of brilliant color—are surely amongst the most sensual works of art, which can be experienced purely on the emotional level. But Rothko was also a careful student of philosophy and art history, evidenced by his posthumously published book, The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art(2004), and his other writings, which included an article in the Brooklyn Jewish Center Review, the newsletter of one of the schools where he taught.
There isn’t necessarily a conflict between academic and expressionist painting, and there’s no reason why Rothko’s art cannot and should not appeal to viewers on both an intellectual and an emotional level. But one can choose to emphasize one or the other when discussing Rothko’s work, and I was somewhat disappointed to see that the script of “Red” depicted a didactic and preachy old painter, whose artistic vision was simplistic at best.
The script devoted a good deal of lines to Rothko’s aversion to the color black, and his fear that it could overpower his red forms—which one got the sense were his favorites, particularly given the underscoring of the play title. But aside from throwing around the word “pulsating” a few times and using various metaphors for paintings being “alive” and “moving,” the Rothko character didn’t give a lot of insight into his artistic process and values that got much beyond clichés.
Audience members laughed knowingly and mockingly when Rothko questioned whether Warhol would still hang in museums 100 years later—although the jury must still be out, it’s hard to imagine Warhol disappearing in the next half century—and there were a few grunts of agreement when Ken denounced Rothko as a hypocrite and sell out. The sell out charge was in response to Rothko’s willingness to produce work for a high-end restaurant, and the hypocrite label was a reaction to Rothko’s refusal to acknowledge the value of the younger generation of rebellious artists even as he argued that it was necessarily for every generation of artists to “kill” their predecessors.