Directed by Steve Scott
Produced by Redtwist Theatre
Two Actors Wrestle for Future of Art
What’s interesting about artists arguing over aesthetics in the mid-twentieth century? Only the fates of these two individuals and which of their values will become dominant in their culture. John Logan’s Red, which premiered in 2009, depicts the painter Mark Rothko at a time of professional crises. It has been widely acclaimed, and now, mounted in Redtwist’s intimate space, brings audiences right into the studio where a drama of love and resentment between a master and his apprentice unfolds.
Brian Perry plays Rothko, the intellectually strident abstract painter known best for his fascination with rectangles. He has been commissioned to paint a series for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. It’s a major project, yet it conflicts with his radical sensibilities. Aaron Kirby plays Ken, a much younger painter Rothko has hired to help him mix paints, prepare canvases, and do other mundane tasks. Rothko insists he’s not Ken’s mentor or friend, but the pedagogical narcissist can’t help impressing his vision on Ken in lengthy monologues, one of which takes up the first five minutes of the show. For his part, Ken is fascinated by Rothko, or at least the idea of him, and is eager to learn whatever he can.
But they soon start chafing each other. Ken, whose exact age is never said but couldn’t be older than thirty, doesn’t have the massive knowledge of the liberal arts Rothko demands of anybody worth respecting. He also is also still emotionally fragile from having found his parents murdered as a child. He uses painting partly as a form of therapy, but questions whether that means he ought to share that part of himself with the critical world. While Ken’s pain comes from external forces, Rothko has serious mental problems, and is intolerant of anything he does not understand or disagrees with. He takes great pride in having cast down the generation of cubists and surrealists before him, but refuses to accept he might ever be displaced by pop-art or whatever crap kids like now.
This piece obviously succeeds because of the two actors. Though Parry plays Rothko as older than he would have been in 1958 or ever, he mixes the genius’s unshakable self-regard with fervent passion for the spiritual importance of his craft and beginning of despair. Kirby is vulnerable, but grows the self-confidence and perspective to eventually stand up to his reluctant mentor. Their intellectual commitment makes their arguments over the likes of Nietzsche and Pollock and all the associations people have with the color red compelling. At the same time, there is warmth between them, which is what makes their battles all the more painful. Rothko manages a rare moment of compassion and horror while Ken recounts finding his parents, which makes his later treatment of Ken all the sadder for both of them. However, their shared joy in painting a canvas in one scene was undermined by the audience’s anxiety over getting splattered. Though the seats most likely to get flicked are clearly designated and supplied with ponchos, I wish the staff could have used something washable.
Director Steve Scott has carved out a realistic, but evocative world for these self-aware dramatic characters. Scenic designer Eric Luchen and lighting designer Zoë Mikel-Stites made a studio for Rothko, including replicas of his paintings under the dark conditions he considered ideal for them. Giving Rothko the home field advantage lends credibility to the mystical properties he ascribes to art, and forces the audience to listen more keenly in the absence of visual detail. Ken argues that some people don’t really need tragedians to remind them pain exists, and are only looking for a moment of beauty. But by foregrounding the red and black Seagram murals, which were born of ambivalence, and creating such a mixture of human and philosophical conflict in such an intimate space, this production proves a work of art can be both painful and rewarding.
Reviewed February 7, 2015
For more information, see Red’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W Bryn Mawr, Chicago. For tickets, call 773-728-7529 or visit www.redtwist.org. Tickets are $30-35 with discounts for seniors and students. Plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through March 8. Running time is one hundred minutes with no intermission.