Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Red at Arena Stage

Mark Rothko was a volatile artist known for his vibrant use of color and shape in his paintings.   While most people who see modern art do not take the time to truly examine the work, John Logan's Tony Award winning play Red illuminates both the artist and his work.       With the genius casting of Edward Gero as Mark Rothko and Patrick Andrews as his assistant, Ken, Red is an emotionally engaging evening of theater clocking in at the just right 100 minutes time.

In 1958, Mark Rothko was commissioned to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagrams Building in New York City.   Rothko was paid in advance a large sum of money.  Yet, when the works were nearly completed he visited the restaurant space to see the finished backdrop for his art.   Unable to reconcile his artistry with the commercial snobbery of a high end restaurant he returned the money and kept the work.    Today three of the paintings are on display at the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC through April 15, 2012.    They are well worth a trip to see the paintings that caused such a fuss.  

John Logan imagines the studio of the artist in which these works were created.   In this taut two person drama he gives the audience a portrait of a raging passionate egotist whose brilliance as an artist is coupled with the dark emotions of a man at the height of his fame, yet facing being overtaken by the next generation of artists just as his generation overtook the cubists, surrealists and dadaists.

Director Robert Falls takes us on a carefully shaped journey through the creative process in the mind of a man who is talented, bullying and mesmerizing to watch.  Certain scenes are so alive and dynamic that they take the audience's breath away.   In particular one scene, Ken and Rothko prime a canvas.  It is a silent scene enhanced by the perfect music score of Richard Woodbury. The actors are aggressive and driven,  even providing sexual heat.   At the conclusion they are physically exhausted and splattered in primer. The audience may need to join the actors in a cigarette break.

The audience is presented with the creative chaos that is a messy artist's studio, designed by Birgit Rattenborg Wise.   Into this world comes Ken, a compilation of several of Rothko's assistants, wonderfully realized as a complex foil by Patrick Andrews.   Ken is an artist himself, but here there is no mentorship between artist and student.  Ken is the one who builds the frames, primes the canvases, fetches the meals.   Yet, a relationship does begin to form as Rothko eventually pries from Ken the dark recesses of the young man's life.   This backstory could be seen as maudlin in lesser hands.  Mr. Andrews takes the  less savory elements of his characters story and rises above the weak points of the material delivering a performance that equally matches his brilliant partner on the stage.

Edward Gero simply embodies Mark Rothko.   His is not an impersonation or a caricature.   Mr. Gero gives Rothko life whether it is railing against the pop art generation or giving a history lesson to his assistant.    When the play reaches its climax the audience comes away with a sense that we have witnessed a turning point in the artist's career, yet while we may cheer the artist's integrity, it is tinged with a sadness that we have also glimpsed the troubled mind that will commit suicide a decade after the play's events.

There is also a silent chorus upon the Kreeger Stage, Rothko's paintings.   As part of the design for the show several of the murals have been recreated.   Thanks to perfect lighting designed by Keith Parham the paintings themselves come to life as the audience sees the differences in how these simple blocks of color appear and behave under different lighting conditions.   Even someone who dislikes abstract art cannot help but be moved by seeing these works of art.     And that is what John Logan's Red truly is, a work of art.

This production of Red originated at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.   Red will be performed in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage through March 11, 2012.   For tickets and performance information and to access dramaturg notes, please visit

Washington DC is home to the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection which was specifically designed by the artist to house the four paintings within the space.   For information on visiting the Phillips Collection please visit    For information on the Seagrams murals on exhibit at the East Building of the National Gallery of Art please visit

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