Monday, October 03, 2011

'Red' Paints a Colorful, Abstractly Expressionistic Picture of Mark Rothko -- Theatre Review

Theater Review

a recent play by John Logan
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 30

I like the "color splotch" paintings of Mark Rothko, though I would be hard-pressed to define why.

Though widely-renowned as prime examples of Abstract Expressionism--a term Rothko hated--the pictures seem relatively simplistic in composition and craftsmanship.

Yet there is something engagingly evocative about Rothko's use of color and the spatial relationships; my attempt years ago to paint a "Sethko" showed that not just any idiot could create a museum-quality imitation.

Somewhat similarly, I can't explicitly explain why Red, John Logan's somewhat factual/somewhat fictional Tony-winning drama about Rothko and a young apprentice, is so good. It's not really a biography or staged documentary, as it focuses on just two years in Rothko's life and creates the character of Ken in a 100-minute, two-man, one-act play.

Ostensibly the drama revolves around Rothko's 1958 commission to create murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the nascent Seagram's building, and his ultimate decision not to fulfill it. Yet this central dilemma doesn't acutely come to the fore until the last half-hour, with artistic rumination dominating the dialogue far more than a plot-driven narrative.

Though Logan, a playwright from Evanston who's enjoyed great success as a screenwriter--Gladiator, The Aviator, Any Given Sunday--fills the stage with shrewd insights as espoused by Rothko, I would need a copy of the script to specifically cite any of the great lines--or even key messages. Abstractly, nothing felt particularly novel or overly revelatory; even the quasi-father/son relationship between Rothko and Ken was more overtly tyrannical than touching.

And yet, not unlike Rothko's art itself, Red works. And rather wonderfully at that.

The Goodman production is the first beyond the much-decorated London/Broadway original and under the direction of Robert Falls, Edward Gero delivers a richly-saturated portrayal of Mark Rothko.

Embodying the painter's artistic temperament with seamless sophistication, Gero gives us a Rothko who mixes churlish arrogance with an intellectual sensitivity that fuels his desire to--above all--create works of significance.

Patrick Andrews, who I've seen do fine work as the Emcee in Cabaret and as Bobby in American Buffalo, is also quite good as Ken, a seemingly eager, oft put-upon assistant who becomes as possessive of Rothko's artistic integrity as the artist himself.

I can't say I'm entirely clear on the motivation that Logan has given Ken, whose backstory seems a bit melodramatic, but at face value his interaction with Rothko is quite engaging, and this is a play that would be ideal for further exploration when produced at a venue like Timeline Theatre a few years hence.

For while I'm no expert when it comes to Abstract Expressionism, Rothko's paintings provoke a presumption of something deeper at work beneath the surface--as supported by this exploration of his intellectual convictions--and though it succeeds extremely well simply as high-quality entertainment, Red is a play that will likely reveal an even richer hue upon further, and future, contemplation.

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