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'Red' illuminates the creative process

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Arizona Theatre Company

'Red' illuminates the creative process

Play follows Rothko during abstract expressionism's final gasp

  • Denis Arndt (standing) as Mark Rothko and Connor Toms as his assistant in 'Red.'
    Chris Bennion/Arizona Theatre CompanyDenis Arndt (standing) as Mark Rothko and Connor Toms as his assistant in 'Red.'

“Red” is not truth. Arizona Theatre Company’s final play of the 2011-12 season is many things – passionate, conflicted, messy – but it is not truth. It is art.

“Red,” winner of the 2008 Tony for Best Play and written by noted screenwriter John Logan (“”Gladiator,” “The Aviator,” “Hugo” and numerous other Hollywood hits), tells the story of artist Mark Rothko. Actually, it only tells a small part of Rothko’s story, since the play is really about art, its rigors and sacrifices, and the art world in New York City during the 1950s, before the '60s changed everything.

The story follows Rothko, the famous abstract expressionist, in 1958-59, after he received a large commission to create a series of paintings. The paintings were to decorate the upscale Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagrams Building, a newly constructed modernist skyscraper. Rothko is exhilarated that he was selected for the job, happy about the money, pleased to create works specifically for a permanent space, but nonetheless, conflicted about his own success.

Set in Rothko’s studio, the play postulates Ken, a young assistant to interact with the artist, who gives Rothko both an audience and a student for his constant and often aggrandizing verbalizations. The painter treats the large canvasses he has created for the project, using similar red tones and variations of his characteristic rectangle within a rectangle shapes, as if they are a tribe he created, living beings acting in concert.

The Rothko character is thorny, totally self-involved. Near the end of their two years working side-by-side, Rothko still knows nothing about Ken’s personal life, nor does he care.

Still, we feel sympathy toward this cold intellectual because of the writing by Logan and the skillful acting by Denis Arndt as Rothko, and Connor Toms as his assistant, Ken. Rothko’s life-affirming dedication to the creative process and his zen-master intellectual prowess mitigate his curmudgeonly attitude toward people.

Along the way, we see Rothko — seemingly unintentionally — educate and mentor Ken, even as he reveals more about himself. Rothko recommends a reading list, explaining that before one can be a true painter, one must have a broad background in music, philosophy, history and more, to understand where one stands as an artist in life’s continuum. While they work, Rothko, totally in the moment, lectures on art history, the nature of light, success, color theory and mortality.

To demonstrate their collaboration, in one of the best moments of the play, they prepare a canvas together, laying down a base coat. (From the beginning, Rothko warns Ken that he will not be allowed to actually paint.) Their brushes dance a messy ballet as they achieve their goal in a matter of frantic moments to the audiences’ delight.

To show their differences, Rothko puts on classical music while he works. When Ken controls the phonograph, it’s hard bop jazz or modern wind/percussion chamber music.

To illustrate his point about the varying qualities of light and their effect on his works, the stage is illuminated with harsh fluorescents and the truth of his lectures is reinforced.

Rothko draws a hard contrast between himself and Jackson Pollock. Though already deceased, Pollock casts a long shadow over Rothko as the foremost abstract expressionist, as an associate, a rival, and ultimately, as a cautionary tale on the price of success. Ken draws the conclusion that wild-man Pollock represented Dionysian culture to Rothko’s more rational and calculated Apollonian state. In his final revelation from the master, Ken comes to understand the complimentary interrelationship between these two classical Greek philosophical concepts.

“Red” does have its flaws. Foremost is the overly talkative didactic Rothko character, even though his monologues are based on comments by the actual person. Also, the back story given to Ken felt particularly contrived and manipulative. Since Ken is a wholly fictional invention, Logan’s choice to make him an orphan whose parents were murdered, primarily to facilitate a discussion of the whiteness of snow on the day that he found his parents’ bodies, is a shameless reach for empathy.

There is also a nostalgic vibe to the play that undercuts any claim to timeless knowledge. “Red” is an homage to old-school intellectuals — well-read and classically trained individuals — actively engaged in discourse and critical thinking, who were so prominent and important to mid-20th Century culture, but now may exist only in academia. With its emphasis on increasingly less familiar Greek and 19th Century philosophers, the relevance of Rothko’s instructions to Ken for our own post-post-modern culture is never clear.

Rothko rails against the hot up-and-coming Pop artists, supplanting the rapidly fading abstract expressionist movement. (There’s a slight historical inaccuracy here: Rothko cites Andy Warhol, who had yet to make a name for himself and Pop Art until after the play’s 1958-59 setting.) Rothko simultaneously disdained success and status while cashing in on his own cultural cache.

Ironically, Rothko’s refusal to give up the spotlight comes after he has already noted how the abstract expressionists blithely made cubist style painting passé, how gleefully they “buried” their predecessors.

“Red” is engaging, well-staged and well-acted. Arndt and Toms have strong chemistry in both their affection and tension with each other. The overall experience is certainly intellectually stimulating. Ultimately, however, the play is more interesting than profound, because it never transcends the peculiarities of Mark Rothko and the zeitgeist of the '50s.

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