If five minutes into Red you find yourself thinking, “Am I really trapped here, listening to this cantankerous old man rant for the next 90 minutes?” I wouldn’t blame you. At first glance, this two-actor bio-drama about abstract painter Mark Rothko seems like an excuse for playwright John Logan to craft grand statements about the sorry state of society and how people just don’t “get” art anymore. But look twice, and maybe take a step back to reflect, and you’ll be surprised at how many of these observations resonate after the play is finished.
In Joel Ferrell’s staging of this 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner, the audience is literally placed inside Rothko’s studio. Transforming the Wyly Theatre’s 9th-floor rehearsal room into performance space—a first—set designer Bob Lavallee surrounds us with the paint-splattered detritus expected of a focused artist. Reproductions of the large mural panels Rothko has been commissioned to create for The Four Seasons restaurant loom over the audience, adding a gallery air to the warehouse-like studio. When complemented by Aaron Johansen’s atmospheric lighting (the rag-covered windows are a nice touch), Jennifer Ables’ 1950s-centric costumes, and Nate Flanagan’s skilled sound design, the effect is completely immersive.
Within this expertly-created world rages a battle of the minds between Rothko and his fictionalized assistant, Ken. Arrogant, brilliant, and blunt, Rothko is a driven defender of his personal perspective, and we see early on that as much as he prizes original thought, he’s not so open to those who find loopholes in his declarations. As Rothko, Kieran Connolly stokes that fire relentlessly, fiercely charging at Ken with ideas and beliefs and challenging him to re-examine his approach to art and life. It’s a tireless performance, but one without much shading or depth. When the lights go out, Connolly’s Rothko is little changed from the person we met when they first came up.
As Ken, Jordan Brodess undergoes a more identifiable arc. Hired at the play’s start to be Rothko’s errand boy, Ken learns more about the art world he has watched from afar—he’s an aspiring painter—while simultaneously figuring out his own approach. When Brodess first enters the studio, he’s a nervous young man, suited up in his best and blinking owlishly at the intimidating genius he has come to work for. When he leaves Rothko’s employ two years later, he stands straighter, speaks more confidently, and stands behind his opinions. With each scene change, Brodess makes this transformation more apparent.
There is a mountain of ideas packed into this short play, but not a lot of action, meaning that sometimes the conversations are akin to watching paint dry. Practically each line of dialogue is a declarative statement, neatly quotable and brimming with subtext that may or may not seem familiar, depending on your level of familiarity with the fine arts. Whether Rothko is dismissing the bright march of pop art into society’s consciousness, taking jabs at the recently departed Jackson Pollock, or scolding Ken for his use of “red” as a color descriptor, the references are decidedly in-crowd.
Even if you don’t recognize the jokes, the words are propped up by the engrossing busywork the actors engage in. If, like me, you only pick up a paintbrush when home décor demands, you might find the continuous acts of mixing paint and cutting boards for canvas—mundane, everyday tasks for artists—a fascinating peek into an alien world.
When Rothko does finally paint, adding a base layer of mulberry tint to a gargantuan canvas with Ken’s help, the scene is thrilling. The men leap and crouch while a classical aria swells in the background, breathless and frantic as they smear the paint across the canvas. When they finally turn to blot their faces with rags, their clothes are streaked with paint, making it look at though they are literally bleeding for their art. Sometimes it’s what isn’t said that makes the most impact.
Photo by Karen Almond