Blood. Sunrise. Santa. Satan.
All Red. All representing the spectrum of psychological responses to the color as layered, composed, and exuded through Mark Rothko’s infamous work. So many words have been used to describe his paintings: from simple to sublime. It’s superfluous to even discuss the feeling that one receives while sitting in the Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection or viewing the Seagram Murals now on view at the National Gallery of Art. For everyone, it’s a different sensation. Constant movement or stale boxes; colorful friction or blurry abstracts. He is one of the foremost abstract expressionists of his time and still remains controversial.
But what cannot be said in journalistic words has (gratefully!) been translated to life on stage, revealing the marvelous, addictive, and even narcissistic character of Rothko—his demons, his context, his creative process, his artistic theory, and his craft.
Last week, Arena Stage opened the much-anticipated production of the Tony Award winning play Red to wanting audiences. Produced in association with Goodman Theatre, the show is so loved, Arena has already extend its run an extra week through March 11, 2012.
A visceral, superbly written battle of artistic wills, Red drops the audience squarely inside the world of Rothko (played by Edward Gero) as he struggles with the creation of his Seagram Murals for the Four Seasons restaurant. At this time, Rothko’s new assistant Ken (played by Patrick Andrews) challenges the artist’s integrity, delving into debates between Apollonian vs. Dionysian, light vs. blackness, business vs. art, abstract expressionism vs. the onset of pop art, and order vs. chaos, all co-existing in tension. The tragedy being that we can never exist on the fulcrum of playful dissonance between either.
It is a story marked by cultural contextualization, whereby Rothko sees the past that informs his present (Nietzsche, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Turner, Joyce, Goya, Sophocles, Matisse, Van Gogh); as well as the future coming to stomp him out (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Stella, Coltrain). In many ways, Ken represents this onset of change causing Rothko to confront his relativity.
While Red is a play of words and the complexities of characters, the most invigorating moment comes when both characters dip their brushes in paint and furiously prime a canvas to climactic opera. By the end, both collapse in exhaustion looking as if they had received a blood bath. It is in this scene, in this thrilling physical action of paint-to-canvas, that the audience feels the most alive. What has us on the edge of our seats, though, is not simply the idea of painting on stage. It is the prospect of creating something new, something demanding, something beautiful. And isn’t that Rothko’s charge? To constantly be making something new.
Red is a masterpiece that deserved every award it won when it premiered on Broadway in 2010. It makes you want to consume art—not just Rothko—in careful, considerate, and cognizant ways. It inspires thought processes to shock staleness and ignorance out of the body’s habitual life. As Rothko himself says toward the conclusion of the play: “I am here to make you think. I am not here to paint pretty pictures.”
One thing is for sure, though. I will never look at a Rothko the same way again.
Red runs January 20-March 11, 2012 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for Americans Theater. Purchase tickets HERE.
Call 202-488-4380 or click HERE to learn more about The Phillips Collection and Red art package featuring a “Membership for a Day” pass to The Phillips Collection and a discounted ticket to Red.
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