Michael L. Quintos
As a young student in college many, many moons ago, one of the things that I grappled with as I thought of viable career prospects for someone pursuing two degrees in the Arts, was whether my choices for personal artistic fulfillment would mean I'd have to, well, literally be a starving artist. I wondered... is it possible to achieve both or are the two aspects mutually exclusive of each other? Well, eventually I ended up focusing on a design career—painting with digital canvases rather than wall-hanging ones—thinking it would be the best possible hybrid that would allow my creativity to flow whilst guaranteeing some food on the table.
This, I surmise, is perhaps the constant, psyche-stirring tug-of-war most artists—very serious ones, at least—must contend with on an ongoing basis: the ability to achieve their authentic, rich, desired artistry while making sure their rent's paid at the same time. That is certainly one of several, thought-provoking running motifs in John Logan's riveting Tony Award-winning two-character play RED, an exquisite regional production of which is currently on stage at Orange County's South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through February 21, under the direction of one of SCR's Founding Artistic Directors, David Emmes.
The intriguing play imagines a specific time period (1958-1959) inside the paint-splattered New York City studio of world-renowned abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (played with superb gusto by Mark Harelik) and his struggles to remain an appreciated, serious artiste at the dawn of pop art, Andy Warhol, and the rise of pretty (and well-funded) "over mantle" modern art. How does one remain artistically relevant in this new era?
In this particular juncture, Rothko—at the height of his career and whose name is often uttered in the same breath as the likes of Rembrandt, Turner, and even his artistic rival Pollock—has just been commissioned to paint a large series of well-funded (funny enough) paintings for the brand new luxe Four Seasons restaurant at the posh Seagram Building in Manhattan. While the commission, on paper, feels like an apropos project of Rothko's stature and "importance," inside his tortured soul, the artist is conflicted by the assignment, even as he forges ahead, still giving the murals his apparent due diligence and forethought. As one would expect with an artist of his caliber and serious thematic sensibilities, he is completely torn between achieving artistic greatness and giving the rich folks at the Four Seasons exactly what they paid good money for.
But will his expensive paintings live on merely drowned in a sea of high-priced, high-brow power lunches and dinners, where the patrons could care less about his work on the walls? Are these red-emblazoned paintings—a clear extension of Rothko's current fiery emotions that may as well be his own biological children—just going to disappear into the background, all for a paycheck?
It is this turmoil that drives the play to question one's motivations for artistic value and merit, particularly with such a passionate artist like Rothko. Luckily for the audience (and, in a way, for Rothko himself) the painter volleys this turmoil with someone he probably didn't expect to be having such meaningful discussions with, yet fate almost dictates it. This Four Seasons commission, we can assume, is the main purpose for him hiring a brand new assistant, a young budding artist named Ken (played by the impressive Paul David Story), who perhaps came to the studio to gain and learn from a well-known mentor while, obviously, helping the aging artist mix paints, fetch lunches, and build/prep his massive canvases (to note, Ken is an entirely fictional character that sprung from Logan's vivid imagination). Well, he certainly fulfilled those duties—plus being Rothko's virtual punching bag, so to speak.
At the start of the drama, Rothko, in heavy-thinking silence, stares up, beyond the fourth wall of the stage, presumably examining and meticulously over-analyzing his latest work of art hanging in his gallery. He stares at it rather inquisitively—mostly puzzled, and partly vexed and irritated. The audience is watching an artistic mind at work, pouring over his painted labor that we can assume is saturated with, you know, Deep Important Themes.
When Ken enters cautiously, confused but with a small bit of idol-worship twinkle in his eye, Rothko breaks his silence with a question.
"What do you see?" he asks, passionately uttered.
It's a simple question that can be interpreted in several ways, from simplistic to downright existential—but, man, is it ever a loaded question.
"Red," answers his new assistant, matter-of-factly. The audience is amused. Rothko... not so much.
This triggers the enthralling exchange stretched out for many, many months between the young artist-in-training with his own dark past and the noted, seasoned artist who wishes to remain relevant as tastes and sensitivities change with the time. Some of their exchanges vary from volatile to sad to surprisingly poignant—as both men learn from each other on what may or may not constitute a "real" artist. For Ken, who clearly sees Rothko as someone he can learn a great deal from to strengthen his own artistic hopes, the Four Seasons projects seems totally against what Rothko claims to be about, which Rothko realizes, but also, in his own way, justifies.
"If someone says one of my paintings is pretty," Rothko protests, "it makes me want to vomit!"
So why take on such a commercial, "sell-out" assignment? For Rothko, he sees his series of red-hued murals as a subliminal eff-you to all the rich assholes dining in the exclusive restaurant. But much deeper than that, these "color field" paintings truly reflect the deep abyss that has slowly been developing within the artist (in real life, Rothko eventually commits suicide in 1970).
As time passes—and his patience understandably running thin—the often unjustifiably ridiculed and berated Ken starts challenging the highly-opinionated, often erratically conflicted Rothko right back. Ken even questions, at one point, whether his laboring for the temperamental Rothko all these months were a waste of time. For his part, though Rothko openly admits that he's not looking to be Ken's mentor, slowly and surely, he totally takes on the role anyway, whether he was aware of it or not.
Still, as Rothko soldiers on with the project, he alludes that his paintings are windows to his genuine feelings of an overtaking despair.
"There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend," he admits, "one day, the black will swallow the red." You see, for Rothko, black hues equal death and the absence of light.
Running at a well-paced 90 minutes (without an intermission), RED is at its most gripping when one anticipates the next outburst or declarative speech from Rothko (so winningly rendered by Harelik), and how Ken (essayed powerfully by Story) reacts to the varying degrees of passion, passive-aggression, or even the occasional pleasantness that may meet him at any given day. Both actors do their best to go beyond the expected surface traits of their respective characters—Rothko is much more than just a frustrated, cantankerous old man; Ken is much more than the fragile boy desperately seeking a father figure/mentor guide. Their interplay and conversations about art feels certainly high-brow, yet somehow dispenses with the expected pretension, perhaps because the audience sees Ken as a peer, our representative into Rothko's work and mindset, and, therefore at times speaks to our own questions of/for Rothko.
Though Logan includes a fairly clichéd backstory for Ken that involves a haunting childhood trauma (a device, perhaps, meant to give Rothko a chance to evoke a brief moment of empathy towards his young Padawan, er... apprentice), the play is still, overall, a riveting two-person drama that's rich in artistic articulation. Ralph Funicello's darkly beautiful, incredibly detailed warehouse set—haunted with quite a foreboding quality with its lived-in feel and hanging painted canvases hoisted all around—is an excellent framework for the drama, complimented well with Tom Rozika's dramatic lighting design, Fred Kinney's vintage costumes, and Cricket Myers' environmental sounds.
A definite, quite thrilling highlight in RED, however, is the hypnotic, beautifully-choreographed rapid-fire pas de deux painting frenzy that had Harelik and Story spend minutes meticulously painting over a canvas completely in a dark red coat. It's quite an amazing, dialogue-free moment that not only demonstrates the incredible harmony the two actors display as their characters, but it also shows a lovely, if fleeting moment in which the two characters—two artists with one mutual goal—retreat from their mentor/men-tee corners to come together in sync and totally immersed in their artistic endeavor. It seems like such a simple, staged moment, but it becomes a powerful, visceral symbol of unabashed artistic expression.
Like all artists, desperately conveying ideas, thoughts, and deeper meanings underneath layers upon layers of splattered, purposefully placed paint, RED is more than a visual treatise on artistic merit in the face of changing attitudes and monetary values. At its base coat, it's an everyman story of a man with strong artistic convictions who just wants to leave something valuable to the world. It may not always be pretty to look at, but it's at least something interesting with plenty to say.
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Photos by Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory. Review originally published for OnStage.
John Logan's RED continues performances at South Coast Repertory through February 21, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.