Red by John Logan

“Red” by John Logan, directed by Richard E.T. White, opened at the Seattle Rep on Wed, February 29th starring Denis Arndt as 20th Century abstract painter Mark Rothko and Connor Toms as Ken, his assistant.  Originally the play opened in 2009 at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and on Broadway it won a Tony award in 2010 and the Drama Desk Award.  Through a long conversation, Ken and Rothko discuss life and art.

Rothko’s life was extremely interesting; he was born a Jew in the Russian Empire, emigrated to the US right before WWI, won a scholarship to Yale ten years later, dropped out because of the WASP atmosphere, lived in New York City during artistically fertile times (the 1920’s to 1970)  During these years, visual art went through many different permutations, and Rothko was part of the avant garde.   He evolved from painting portraits, to surrealism, to mythological themes, to German Expressionism to abstract expressionism.  His life contained a huge emotional canvas:  immigrant poverty, two failed marriages, depression, the impact of WWII, however, that was not the dramatic focus of the play.   The focus of the play was his refusing a big commission because of so-called artistic integrity. 

 Unfortunately, as the character was portrayed in this play, the core of his personality was clinical depression and extreme hostility to humanity disguised as artistic integrity.   Rothko reminded me of the character of Frederick, played by Max von Sydow in Woody Allen’s “Hannah and her Sisters.”  Rothko and Frederick are both pompous pontificating artists, whose clinical depression manifests itself in contempt for the people who buy their paintings as well as for the people who don’t.  However, 90 minutes of a serious Frederick rather than an ironic one was too much.

 Many things seemed to be missing from this play.  The audience saw about five or six paintings during the course of the play; however they were all of the same style and color scheme and virtually the same painting.  With the digital advances in theatre, perhaps the play could have been more interesting if they had used that technology to display some of his earlier artwork as he recounted his artistic evolution.  The scene changes were slow, many of the lines were delivered upstage and although Rothko’s slight Russian accent was perfect, some of his lines were mumbled and I wondered if he could be heard in the back row. 

 In a play where a central theme was depression, there was little about how art, especially painting, saves depressed people by giving them a meditative activity through which  they can shut out the external world and their obsessive thoughts, and actually find some happiness in life. The joy that comes from creativity was missing.  Also missing was the obvious point that painting for a living, even if it is  patronized by  bourgeois cretins, beats waiting tables.  And no one can ever stop a painter from realizing his artistic vision, even if he has to compromise to earn a living.  

 In real life, at the age of 67, having committed suicide by overdosing on anti-depressants and slashing his wrists, Rothko was found by his assistant.  In the play “Red”, the suicide is amply foreshadowed but then the audience was left hanging because  the actual suicide was never mentioned, nor were the circumstances leading to his suicide developed ( failed marriages and ill-health)  

 The best acting in “Red” was the assistant, Ken. Connor Toms recounted Ken’s  major childhood trauma very effectively; it was in fact one of the few moments when the play actually engaged my attention.  Ken played the role of challenging Rothko’s vanity and had a humorous but profound line: “it’s only a painting!!!”  The character of Rothko as written was very unpleasant, pretentious, and even cruel.  Denis Arndt, the actor, was not able to rise above the script and make the audience care about Rothko and the main character in a two person play has to in some way engage the audience’s sympathy. 

 Most of the audience seemed to enjoy this play, the applause was strong at the end, so if you like to listen to long discourses on visual art, rather than see visual art, “Red” may appeal to you. 

 RED by John Logan, Directed by Richard E.T. White.  Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center. (corner of 2nd Ave and Mercer.)  February 29th to March 24th 7:30 Wed through Sun. with some 2pm matinees Sundays and Wednesdays  Tickets at (206) 443-2222 as well as online at www.seattlerep.org.

 

 

       

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