By Chad Nance
“A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!”
– Mark Rothko
On February 25, 1970, a set of murals arrived at Tate, one of the world’s premier art museums. The paintings were huge, brooding meditations on tragedy- glimpses into the void painted in reds, browns, purples, and blacks. The very day these paintings reached Tate, their creator was found lying dead on his kitchen floor by his assistant, Oliver Steindecker. The artist had sliced his arms with razor blades and pumped himself full of enough anti-depressants to choke a bull elephant. Those paintings would be known as the Seagram Murals. Mark Rothko‘s (the artist) intellectual and spiritual struggle to create that particular commission is the subject of John Logan’s intellectually complex play, “Red.” The specter of Rothko’s eventual suicide hung like a red pall over the opening night performance coloring what the audience experienced at the theater and what they took away from it.
The play opened on Saturday night at the Hanesbrands Theater as part of Triad Stage’s first year of staging plays in Winston-Salem as well as Greensboro. A twocharacter play in 90 minutes with no intermission, “Red” is an intriguing, challenging, and occasionally frustrating experience at the theater. Actor Ned Van Zandt has turned his Rothko into a concrete physical presence that exudes aggressive masculinity, self indulgent self-flagellation and bristles with declarations and judgments – yet remains in large part a cipher to the audience. Actor Craig De Lorenzo has the unenviable task of being the stand-in for the audience, a sounding board for Rothko’s personal philosophies and pathologies, and must still try to find room in the role to craft “Ken” into a flesh and bone human being. De Lorenzo works hard on stage using his own physicality to nuance Ken’s transformation from acolyte to challenging the high priest of artistic self importance on the foundations of his personnel temple.
“Red” is a challenging and entertaining piece of work, that never the less often feels cold and intellectual. The set design and costuming by Junghyun Georgia Lee has a genuine, lived-in feel with attention to details such as paint splatters on the rotary phone, a thrift-store chair up front, and the paint stains on the stage floor. Lee and crew successfully converted the Hanesbrands space into a real, tactile place in which Rothko could live and breathe as a character and the audience can believe that there is a vibrant world just off stage. The stage design, with its cluttered realism, stands in sharp contrast to Rothko’s own works which were abstract to the point of forcing the viewer to project their own feelings and atmospheres onto the paintings. This serves to emphasize the underlying reality created in Logan’s text. If Alfred Hitchcock was correct and drama is two dogs fighting over a bone then “Red” is drama distilled down to it’s most basic and primal elements.
The direction by Jeffery West is clean and unobtrusive. The way he stages and blocks the action of the play shows the same thoughtfulness and attention to detail that permeates the performances, technical work, and set design. West’s staging places the audience in the point of view of one of Rothko’s paintings. This allows both characters to address viewers directly and also serves to allow the direct confrontations between Rothko and Ken to take on an element of voyeurism. We, as an audience, watch Rothko bully and manipulate the young man- including one particularly uncomfortable scene that pulls the audience in by forcing them to feel complicit in manipulating Ken into revealing his darkest fears. Rothko brazenly manipulates Ken’s childhood trauma in a way that allows the painter to vicariously look into the void through Ken’s eyes, while at the same time provides Rothko with emotional ammunition he will later use as a weapon against his young assistant.
Mark Rothko was a complex human being with passionate ideas about intellectualism, art, and spirituality that were often expressed through his work, but just as likely to be expressed in words. If Rothko in life was anything, he was loquacious. He wrote and published extensively about his theories about art, philosophy, and life. Along with De Kooning, Pollack, and Ilya Bolotowsky, Rothko stood astride the post-war art world for a time until he and his contemporaries were rendered passé by the rise of Pop Art in the late 1950s.
“Red” is set in 1958 when Rothko was awarded a major mural commission. The beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons had recently completed a new building on Park Avenue which had been designed by architects Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Rothko agreed to provide paintings for the building’s new luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons. This was, as art historian Simon Schama wrote, “bringing his monumental dramas right into the belly of the beast.” Playwright John Logan uses anachronistic 21st Century language (Rothko refers to the restaurant’s patrons as part of a “1 percent.”) to illustrate the inherent tension between an artist who strove to bring the divine into his art and the high sepulcher of mammon that was the Four Seasons.
Rothko found this commission to be a unique artistic challenge for him, as it was the first time he was required not only to design a coordinated series of paintings, but to produce an artwork display concept for a large, specific interior. For Rothko how a painting was hung and in what particular setting it was to be viewed were as important as what colors and techniques would be used to create the image. Over three months, Rothko completed 40 paintings, three full series in dark red and brown. He altered his horizontal format to vertical to complement the restaurant’s vertical features: columns, walls, doors and windows. In life, as in the play, Rothko would return the money to the Seagram’s corporation and the work created for the Four Seasons would be scattered to various collections and art museums from Japan to London.
The internal story of “Red” stretches the time of the Seagram Murals creation out to two years, one assumes to allow for Rothko’s relationship with Ken to develop. That only serves to underline a flaw in the text, however. The relationship never does develop. At times, the character of Ken feels inorganically inserted into the play in order to have someone for Rothko to talk to rather than simply turning “Red” into a one man monologue. While Craig De Lorenzo’s performance as Ken is solid, and as a performer he connects emotionally with the text and the audience at several key moments, John Logan made Ken’s personal narrative and character so thin and superficial that the part simply serves as a function in the internal architecture of “Red” rather than as a fully integrated human being. De Lorenzo performs Ken’s two major moments with passion and immediacy, but the playwright has let him down somewhat. Ken’s major freak-out at the end gives voice to the audiences’ own growing frustration with Rothko’s hypocrisies and idiosyncratic horse shit. Ken’s powerful monologue about finding his parents following their murder simply comes across as re-heated accounts of Charles Starkweather’s mid-western killing spree, which occurred the same year (1958) that “Red” occurs in. The back story is also derivative of the 1959 Kansas massacre of the Clutter family by Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith. That murder would be turned into the legendary non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Using this kind of background story for Ken only feels motivated by the need to give his character some heft and import. Using the two celebrated and documented killing sprees that took place while the play’s narrative takes place feels too “written” and overly clever.
The dialogue written by Logan for Van Zandt as Rothko is mostly from writing that Rothko did throughout his career and things he said as told by Jimmy Breslin in his seminal book on the artist. Van Zandt’s performance is forceful, enigmatic, and strong. His sleeves stay rolled part way up his forearms giving Rothko the air of a working man- a craftsman. Van Zandt’s thick forearms and powerful looking hands look like those of a man who has spent his working life painting massive canvases. This outward and physical projection of swaggering masculinity is powerful and adds charisma and force to Rothko’s philosophizing and intellectual musings about art and life.
One also gets a sense, from Van Zandt’s performance, of a Hemingway-esque falseness to Rothko’s swagger. The scene where he manipulates and bullies Ken into telling the story about how he found his parents slaughtered also intimates that Rothko, himself, was living through Ken’s trauma. The settled, semi-wealthy, and celebrated artist using this young man’s eyes to stare over into the pit to grab a little despair for the canvas.
Rothko talked of darkness, the black, and the void, but he had only ever given witness to the real darkness in the heart of mankind from a distance- never close enough to get bloody. This provides a strong tension for the entire play. Here Logan and Van Zandt do deft work. Rothko is a man who voices strong conviction and imagines his own self the hero at the center of a universal story, yet Rothko is also a man who never truly lives up to his own standards and falls easily into hypocrisy when given the opportunity. Rothko is like a corrupted sage or the Wizard of Oz. What saves Rothko from being completely intolerable, however, is that the man is not self-deluded. Van Zandt finds nobility for Rothko in the reality that the painter knows just how short of the glory he comes and it is killing him. Rothko’s greatest battles in life were not against artistic foes. The grandest struggle was not against the artistic icons of the past. Rothko’s greatest struggle- in “Red” as in life- was with himself.
Logan is a scholar. The play, while not always technically accurate and always emotionally cold, does a great job with historical detail and framing the major artistic conflicts of Rothko’s era. From Ken, the assistant, helping Rothko put paint to canvas, to Rothko’s visceral reaction to Pop Art the play rings true and holds great fascination for fans of Rothko and 20th Century modern art in general.
“Red” is paced perfectly and ends exactly when it should. The play runs 90 minutes, but it is a compelling 90 minutes that never grows boring and demands the intellectual as well as tactile engagement of the audience. Watching the performance in a space the size of the Hanesbrands added an extra layer of authenticity to the proceedings. When Rothko lights a Marlboro the audience can smell it. From the moment Ken and Rothko finally stretch and paint a massive canvas the smell of paint began to slowly permeate the theater, providing a sensory backbeat to much of what occurs as the play begins to concern itself with Rothko’s coming suicide and his decision to turn his back (momentarily at least) on material concerns and reject the Seagram commission. For those theater goers who do not know how Rothko’s career went, perhaps there is a happy ending in his last permanent installation. Rothko did finally get the holy space he so wanted his art to live in. The Rothko Chapel in Huston, Texas was the artist’s final work. He designed the building, the gallery space, and the lighting scheme. Rothko had total control over every aspect of the chapel and finally his dream was realized and he had been able to place some of his “children” out into the world while still maintaining his protective bubble of absolute command.
“Red” will be playing through February 23rd at the Hanesbrands and is yet another example of the high quality live theater we have access to in Winston-Salem. What director West and his team have brought to us with “Red” is fine craft and intellectually complex. What we take away as an audience is up to us… and that is exactly how Mark Rothko would want it to be. Who needs certainty and rote explanation? That would be boring. Life is about mystery, life is about fear, life is about beauty, and in the end life is exactly what we struggle to make of it.