I took my usual Kosher Bus down to Washington to catch John Logan’s Red, his play about Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (1903-70), at the Arena Stage’s new Mead Center for American Theater at the matinee on Sunday afternoon, 26 February. I’d seen Washington actor Edward Gero as Salieri in a revival of Amadeus in May 2011 (see my report on ROT, 6 July 2011) and the actor’s program bio noted that he was going to be playing Rothko in Chicago and then at Arena, and I wanted to see the play. I’d missed it here in New York City, so my mother and I arranged the date so I could squeeze the trip in between shows here for which I had tickets already. (Red ran on Broadway in the spring of 2010 in a generally well-received production with Alfred Molina as the artist Mark Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant, Ken. The production had come from London’s Donmar Warehouse where Michael Grandage, who staged the show, is the artistic director. It won six Tonys, including one for Best Play.) The revival at Arena’s Kreeger Theater is a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where the play ran first, from 17 September to 30 October 2011, before moving to Washington; Robert Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman, the country’s second oldest repertory theater company, directed the revival.
Playwright Logan says he was moved to write Red when he was in London in 2007 filming Sweeney Todd, for which he’d written the screenplay. He paid a visit to the Tate Modern which has an exhibit of nine of Rothko’s 1958 murals intended for the elegant Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. “They had a very powerful effect on me,” Logan asserts. “I knew very little about Mark Rothko, very little about Abstract Expressionism, but I found the paintings themselves profoundly moving and kinetic in a strange way.” The writer was deeply moved by the paintings: “They touched me, mostly because of their sense of profound seriousness.” Taken with the story of how the painter had changed his mind and decided to keep the murals, returning the money for the commission, the dramatist decided there was a play “in Rothko’s complicated relationship with his work.”
Logan came to understand that Rothko’s “frame of reference, his world, was entirely that of painting. So before the character could speak about anything, I felt as though I had to have some facility in the visual arts and in the specifics of the language of art history.” With no background in art, the writer “realized I would have to gain a significant understanding of art history” because Rothko was “such an intellectually challenging artist” who “had an encyclopedic knowledge of painting and of artists.” The playwright recounts that “I spent eight or nine months researching art history. Going to museums, looking at paintings, and trying to see which artists had inspired Rothko, how he fit into the tradition, and why and how he broke with tradition. In a way it was like learning a new language for me—the language of visual art.”
The play’s not an actual biography of the painter (though Logan read one by James E. B. Breslin, as well as Rothko’s own writings on art and color), nor a depiction of any actual events in his life. The character of Ken, for instance, is invented, not based on anyone in Rothko’s life. (In the Washington Post, Peter Marks describes Ken as “a composite of the assistants who toiled in Rothko’s Manhattan studio,” but Logan has stated that he’s not even that: he’s entirely made up.) In fact, the relationship between Rothko and Ken in Red isn’t a reflection of the painter’s relationships with his actual assistants, who were mere practical employees, there only to do what Rothko needed, Logan explains. The playwright has said that “the play is really not about art at all, it's not about painting; it's about fathers and sons” and he sees Ken as a surrogate son for the “flamboyant” painter. Rothko would “be the prow of an ocean liner cutting through the ocean and Ken would have to be the wave that billows around it for most of the play,” Logan explains.
Red débuted in London at the renowned Donmar Warehouse, a cradle of new and experimental plays that have often had subsequent success both in the West End and at theaters in this country. It played in London from 3 December 2009 to 6 February 2010 before transferring to Broadway’s John Golden Theatre on 11 March 2010 for previews, opening on 1 April and running until 27 June. After the successes in London and on Broadway, Logan, who went to college and began his playwriting career in the Chicago area in the early 1980s when, he asserts, “it was like Paris in the ’20s,” says he knew there’d eventually be an American production, with an American director and an American cast. The Chicago-Washington staging is among the the first, though with its critical reception, single set, and small cast, I’d bet there’ll be more pretty quickly. (College productions would seem a natural, I’d think, especially since one character is a young man—and even Rothko is only 55 at the time of the play.) It won’t hurt the play’s prospects that it runs only 100 minutes and has no intermission. The D.C. production opened for previews on 20 January and is scheduled to close on 11 March (including an extension of eight additional performances).
Washington has made something of an event of the play’s appearance there. On 8 December 2011, Edward Gero performed excerpts from the production at the Phillips Collection, one of the District’s most distinguished art museums. The staged reading was followed by a conversation with David Dower, Arena’s associate artistic director, and Klaus Ottman, curator-at-large of the Phillips and author of The Essential Mark Rothko. The Phillips Collection maintains a Rothko Room which founder Duncan Phillips created with the artist in 1960, featuring four Rothko paintings in a small, chapel-like gallery off the main lobby of the museum. Before the performance at the collection, Gero paid the exhibit a visit on his own to experience Rothko’s paintings as the artist had intended: by spending time with them. He read the scene in Red where the artist instructs Ken the way to look at a painting—aloud to the Rothkos—and then he sat for three hours. The Rothko Room, the first public space devoted exclusively to Rothko’s art, has a bench specifically selected by the painter to encourage visitors to do this. (After contemplating the four canvases in the room, Gero met with Ottman who discussed the artist and his work with the actor. This was all part of Gero’s preparation for the part, which also included reading the 1993 Breslin bio, before he went to Chicago for rehearsals. Gero ruminates on this experience in “Field Trip: The Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection” on line at http://geroasrothko.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/field-trip-the-rothko-room-at-the-phillips-collection. Alfred Molina, the Broadway Rothko, also made the trip to the Rothko Room at the Phillips and to the National Gallery of Art’s collection of Rothko canvases.)
In 1985 and ’86, the National Gallery received a large gift of works from the Mark Rothko Foundation, including several of the Seagram Murals. (The third group of the Seagram Murals is part of the collection of Japan’s Kawamura Memorial Museum in Sakura.) From 6 December 2011 through 15 August 2012 the National Gallery will house a special installation of three of the Seagram canvases in the East Building’s Concourse Gallery to coincide with Arena’s staging of Red. Between 3 and 5 February, inspired by Rothko’s stand against art that only the elite would see (the artist’s stated rationale for withdrawing the murals from the up-scale Four Seasons), the Vestibule Guerrilla Gallery presented Seeing Red, an exhibit of street art that everyone can see, at Arena’s Mead Center. (The Guerrilla Gallery, as its name implies, is, well . . . peripatetic. It pops up where it can cause the most impact—wherever the Occupy Movement in Washington is demonstrating, for instance.) For Seeing Red, the gallery assembled a group of emerging D.C. street artists whose works have been seen on the streets and in galleries of the District. The artists in Seeing Red created new work using Rothko’s formula for making art: “I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. . . . It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results of the proportions of these elements.” Other activities and events coordinated with the production have been planned as well and the Washington Post has published several articles on the play, aside from the customary review. (Gero, who’s won four Helen Hayes Awards for his stage work, is a favorite actor of audiences in the District. That would generate press coverage as well.)
To cut to the chase, then—it was worth all the hype (not to mention my bus trip south and back). Red is a terrific play and the Goodman-Arena production is excellent. I was so engaged by this exchange between the narcissistic, self-important artist and his young assistant who grows into intestinal maturity in our presence, so absorbed by the exploration of relationships, legacy, worth, meaning, adversity, life that I knew I had to buy the script. What Logan put on paper and what Falls, Gero, and Patrick Andrews, who plays young Ken, put on stage was one of the most thrilling pieces of new theater I’ve seen in a very long time. Horton Foote’s Orphans’ Home Cycle came mighty close, but the main thrill there was the wonderful and monumental production; otherwise, the nearest I’ve come to this quality of theater experience recently has been at revivals—Brecht’s Threepenny Opera at BAM, Kushner’s Angels in America at Signature, or Schiller’s Mary Stuart on Broadway. (Do you think that’s effusive enough?)
Okay, I don’t think Red will go down as great literature. But it’s really good theater. In fact, it’s theatrical as hell! (Remember my two criteria for good theater? A play must do more than tell a story and it must do it in a theatrical way. Red aces the test.) As Sophie Gilbert of Washingtonian magazine writes, the staging “achieves the seemingly impossible . . . [it] makes spellbinding theater out of watching paint dry.” I’m sorry now that I missed it on Broadway, not because the Arena production is lacking, but because now I wish I could have seen what the other actors and director did with the show. This is the kind of play in which I get caught up in three different aspects, all at once, and each can be so different in the hands of different artists. There’s the text, of course, full of infinitely interpretable lines and scenes; there are the characters, each open to interpretation by different actors under the guidance of different directors; and there’s the relationship between the two characters, which will change if one actor changes even one beat. (I’ve heard, though I don’t know how accurate the report is, that Eddie Redmayne, who won a Tony and an Olivier for his portrayal of Ken on Broadway and in London, had developed such a different feeling about Rothko by the end of the play that he couldn’t deliver the last line of Logan’s script. Redmayne is supposed to have acknowledged that himself, though I’ve never seen it reported; but if it’s even partially true—that, say, the actor had trouble saying the last line because of all that went before in his work with Alfred Molina—that’s what I mean.) This play is so full of possible variations, all of which can be vastly different but equally true or valid, I can’t even contemplate the permutations that are possible. If I were still an actor (and ten years younger), I’d kill to play Rothko somewhere.
Maybe that’s enough enthusiasm for one report. Let’s get to specifics. The play opens on Rothko’s cramped, cluttered studio at 222 Bowery in lower Manhattan in 1958, just after, as we’ll soon learn, the painter’s gotten the commission to create paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building being designed by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, giants of architecture in the post-World War II decades. Todd Rosenthal’s naturalistic set is visible when we come into the theater—the Kreeger’s a traditional proscenium space, but there’s no curtain on this production. Paint pots, buckets, drop cloths, frames, stretchers are all around the periphery of the room; a wheeled work table with cans, brushes, and painterly paraphernalia is stage left center, just below a slop sink; a glassed-in vestibule is up right. There are no windows: natural light isn’t good enough, we’ll learn. And up center, right in front of us, is a monumental canvas, orange and brown, unfinished: a Rothko! Classical music, the opening theme of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, starts playing from a Victrola—we’ll find out that Rothko hates jazz—and the painter comes in to sit in a green, wooden lawn chair, smoke a cigarette, and contemplate the work. Otherwise, silence. This is how art—Rothko’s art—is experienced, considered, understood, judged. This is how the artist himself decides if it’s finished. If it needs more work. What it needs if it does. This is Mark Rothko’s world. This is John Logan’s version of Rothko’s world. For all intents and purposes, this is the universe of Red—though now and then bits of other realities will spin into its orbit. They can be used, confronted, but they aren’t part of this universe. Not even other art is part of this universe.
In walks Ken, young, timid, overdressed—this is a place of work, the painter will inform him—and awed. “What do you see?” Rothko asks him. Me? You want to know what I think? Why? What should I say? And that’s where Ken and Rothko’s relationship starts. Rothko tells Ken in no uncertain terms that he’s not the young wannabe’s—he’s a painter, too, though his work is never seen, not by us or by Rothko— rabbi, father, shrink, friend, or teacher. He’s the employer and Ken’s there to do whatever the artist needs done: stretch canvases, prime them, buy supplies, clean brushes, mix paint, sweep up, move framed paintings, fetch cigarettes . . . whatever. A gofer. But that’s not what happens, as we know it won’t. Ken becomes a sounding board, an outside eye, a test audience, a punching bag, and, yes, a student and, perhaps, a surrogate son. (“The son must kill the father,” Rothko advises Ken. “Respect him, but kill him.”) Over a two-year span in 1958 and 1959, Rothko learns about the bloody murder of Ken’s parents in Iowa when the boy was seven, and Ken hears about Rothko’s witnessing a Cossack raid during a pogrom back in Russia when he was still Marcus Rothkowitz, a land he left at 10 and a name he shed in 1940 when a gallery-owner informed his there were already too many Jewish artists. Little by little, over the hour-and-forty-minute course of the drama, Ken learns to stand up to the bully, even finally to challenge him—and they end up respecting each other, however grudgingly and obliquely.
“What do you see?” It’s both the first thing Rothko says, and the last. Ken’s answer is also the same: “Red.” Red is the essence of the life force, we’ll learn; black is death: Rothko’s greatest fear is that “One day the black will swallow the red.” He means, of course, not only his own death—the painter committed suicide in 1970 by cutting his wrists in his studio (evoked in Red when Ken finds Rothko sitting on the floor covered with paint)—but also the death of his art, swallowed up by the popular work of the Warhols, Lichtensteins, and Rauschenbergs, swiftly coming up behind him—the sons killing the father. Just like he and his contemporaries did to the Cubists, their predecessors. And not only that, but the death of refinement and culture swallowing up all art and creativity.
As you might guess, red is a leitmotif in Red. But what does red actually mean when Ken says that’s what he sees? “What does ‘red’ mean to me?” Rothko demands. “You mean scarlet? You mean crimson? You mean plum-mulberry-magenta-burgundy-salmon-carmine-carnelian-coral? Anything but ‘red!’ What is ‘RED?!’” It’s about perception. It’s about seeing. Life is what you see—not just in art, we’ll discover, but in everything, everywhere. When you look at something, what do you see?
In a profile of Falls in the Washington Post, Gero explains that as a result of the director’s exploration of the play, “Patrick and I became very specific about what was happening at every single moment of the play.” And they did. Andrews, a prolific Chicago actor, and Gero, one of the Capital’s most sought-after performers, match up perfectly for this pair of characters. Andrews, small, slim (a dancer, as it happens), light-haired, mid-20’s, boyish, a tenor, is the physical opposite of Gero, stocky, tall, Italian-swarthy, dark-haired (though balding), mid-50’s, with owlish glasses, a booming baritone. But they’re identical beneath the physiognomy: steel-spined, strong-willed, vocally commanding, both capable of holding the stage either alone or as part of a duo. And they do, taking stage, giving it, sharing it. In fact, the performances are a little like a mostly-bloodless boxing match in the squared-off space of the studio—with the giant canvases as a backdrop (there are maybe half a dozen different “Rothkos” in various states of completion pulled up on the central piece of wall that is Rothko’s “easel”), often the focus of the debate or the catalyst for it. Sometimes Rothko prevails—well, usually he does—and sometimes Ken does, but the tussle is usually pretty even dramatically and neither Gero nor Andrews gives any quarter. It’s just like when the painter and the assistant stand side by side, backs to the audience, to prime a canvas, furiously smearing red-brown paint over the huge expanse of white with broad brushes, silently, except for the slap-slapping of the wet brushes on the fabric, stretching to the top and reaching down to the bottom edge in tandem action to get to the same result—be ready to work. Damn, this was something to watch.
I went down to Washington last September expressly to see the Arena’s revival of Oklahoma!, and that was great fun. I was delighted to have made the trip, but mostly because I just love the old musicals. This was a different pleasure. Granted, it was serendipitous, since I couldn’t have known what I’d see, but I wouldn’t have missed this performance of Red for anything. I know Gero’s work from past performances, and I expect him to be a strong stage presence—that’s why I decided to go down to see this show when I read he was doing the role. But I never heard of Andrews, and I’ve never seen his stage work, which has mostly (though not exclusively) been confined to Chicago. With any luck for the rest of us (I don’t know how he’d feel about this), someone’ll snap him up and get him out to the rest of the country, especially back East, much more often.
Now, Red is a play with only two actors in the cast. But there actually aren’t just two characters. There’s one more presence on the stage that becomes almost as powerful, at least at times, as Ken or even Rothko: the paintings. (Karl Kochvar, resident scenic artist at the Goodman and an artist himself who instructed the two actors about the use of brushes and Rothko’s painting techniques, made the prop Rothkos seen in the production. They look totally convincing to my eye—I’m no Rothko expert, but I’ve seen a few.) Starting with the large canvas seen at the start of the play, a brown field with a thick, rectangular, orange outline around the center (very like one of the actual Seagram Murals), through several changes of the work in progress, the paintings in various states of completion are ever present. There are also smaller paintings hung around the studio, and we gather from the behavior of Ken and Rothko that there’s a wall for displaying other canvases on the downstage “fourth” wall. Rothko’s world is surrounded by his art. (There are no representations of anyone else’s art in the studio, not even the greats with whom Rothko compares himself.) In the very first moment, when the artist examines his work-in-progress, from the first line, “What do you see?” to the last moment (also “What do you see?”), the paintings are the matrix of this small part of life. Logan says that the play’s not about art, or even painting, but the paintings are overwhelming presences, even the ones Ken and Rothko only talk about and we never see. (In the play, Rothko plans to paint 30 or 40 canvases and select the ones that work best together for the Four Seasons.) So Andrews and Gero don’t have to work just off of one another, create a relationship between themselves, but they have to work off the art, create a relationship between each of them and the paintings, let the paintings inform the relationship the actors develop between their two characters. And they do.
As Molly Smith, the Arena’s artistic director, points out, this is endemic to the drama of Red because before turning to painting, Rothko began to train as an actor at the American Laboratory Theatre in New York City (that was Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya’s troupe) and then performed with a company run by the wife of Clark Gable in Portland, Oregon, where he grew up. Painting was a source and an inspiration for contemplation and thought (“Most of painting is thinking,” says the artist), Rothko believed (which is why there’s a Rothko Room at the Phillips), but it was also a dramatic, theatrical act, a performance. Klaus Ottman, the curator and Rothko writer, says that the painter “continued to refer to what’s happening on the canvas as plays and to these color fields as actors that play out emotional dramas.” The Rothko Room at the Phillips and other spaces, like the 1971 Rothko Chapel in Houston, are stage sets in which the spectators are enclosed. Further, since Rothko doesn’t like or trust natural light for art, the studio and gallery lights are his stage lighting (there’s even a rolling Klieg light in the set to spotlight canvases), and Keith Parham’s lighting design for the Goodman-Arena production is both atmospheric and dramatic. (Most striking and effective is the final tableau when the painting on the wall, a black field with a red center, glows from within as the house lights dim. Now, that’s theatrical!) Red, then, is a drama about art as drama: “There’s tragedy in every brush stroke,” declares Rothko, and he doesn’t just mean tremendous sadness and loss. He advises Ken to read Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, a seminal work for theater artists. When he questions Ken about what reading he’s done, Rothko names Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Shakespeare among the philosophers and poets. “Hamlet?” he pleads. “At least Hamlet, please God! Quote me Hamlet. Right now.” To know art—to make art, you must know theater, Logan suggests.
Red’s critical reception in Washington was uniformly excellent. In MetroWeekly, Jonathan Padget calls the play “bracingly effective” and Washingtonian’s Gilbert especially states that the play’s pitting of the artist and the assistant against one another, the fundamental dramatic device, “works brilliantly.” While calling the production “immensely enjoyable,” Marks in the Post also speaks of “other powerful forces at work in ‘Red.’” On the website DCTheatreScene, Jayne Blanchard spotlights the “sublimely detailed and acted production.” She also writes that Gero and Andrews “work magic with the dark poetry” of Logan’s script. Amanda Gunther on another website, Maryland Theatre Guide, is so effusive as to say: “Never before has such a simply complex color blossomed to thrilling exuberant life upon the stage” and the Baltimore Sun’s Tim Smith, comparing the play to Rothko’s paintings, declared that “it pulsates. And the play's impact reverberates long after the curtain calls.” The Chicago notices were much the same, if not more laudatory (Logan, after all, is a kind of hometown boy): the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones calls the play a “superbly taut and compelling drama” and praises Falls’s directing and the acting of both Gero and Andrews, whom Jones thought all surpassed their London-New York counterparts, and Hedy Weiss in the Sun-Times calls Red “bristlingly smart, emotionally fiery.” In fact, in my survey of the reviews I didn’t find a single complaint or detraction, just praise and, often, astonishment that a play not only about art, but about talking about art could be so thrilling on stage. I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly. (When a friend, a theater-lover who lives in central Virginia, asked me if he should make the three-hour drive north to see Red, I told him unequivocally that he should. I might have been more honest to have said he must.)
Now, if you’ll permit me, a side comment. When Red opened in New York two years ago, the Times’s art reporter, Roberta Smith, wrote a column complaining that the play didn’t align with her experience visiting artists’ studios in the years following the setting of the play. I was aghast when I read the comment (which reminded me of another cavil years earlier when a psychoanalyst wrote to criticize Equus for its inaccurate portrayal of clinical behavior by the play’s psychiatrist). Smith seriously misses the point. Red isn’t reality—not only isn’t it Rothko’s reality—it’s not a bio play, just as Logan asserts—but no play is a depiction of reality because it’s art. Logan has created an exciting and moving piece of art that explores the relationship between two men. I gather that it’s based on the dramatist’s relationship with his own father, but that’s really irrelevant, since it’s the artwork which we experience—but under no circumstances is it meant to be a snapshot of reality. It’s informed by reality, as Logan has acknowledged, and it comments on reality, as all art does to one degree or another, but it doesn’t present reality. That Smith, who, as a journalist in another field of art, should certainly know better, or anyone should go to a theater and expect reality to unfold astounds me. (I’ve already decided that I’ll write an ROT article on this topic soon. Look for it in a month or so.) Red is a contemplation, a dramatic effort to discover how two people working on a single project in a confined environment over a short time can affect one another, teach each other, help each other grow. In Red, the one who does most of the growing is Ken, but he effects some great changes on Rothko in the play, too. What Gero and Andrews accomplish, through Logan’s script and with Falls’s guidance, is let us see how that happens. Logan’s right: Red’s not about the Seagram Murals or art—it’s about . . . well, everything. In the play, Rothko tells us:
You have a lot to learn, young man. Philosophy. Theology. Literature. Poetry. Drama. History. Archeology. Anthropology. Mythology. Music. These are your tools as much as brush and pigment. You cannot be an artist until you are civilized. You cannot be civilized until you learn. To be civilized is to know where you belong in the continuum of your art and your world. To surmount the past, you must know the past.
Red’s not about an artist in his studio. What Logan wrote about, what Gero, Andrews, and Falls put up on the Kreeger stage, what I saw (and what Smith should have seen) is simple: Red’s about seeing—it’s about being human.