Four deceptively simple words open Everyman Theatre’s lively, indispensible production of Red that ends its run this weekend: What do you see? Onstage they’re asked by Mark Rothko (Bruce Nelson), who prods Ken (Eric Berryman), the young man applying to be his assistant in 1958, to offer his thoughts about Rothko’s paintings. The question is also directly posed to everybody watching the play—and, really, anybody who looks at and thinks about art. Nelson’s Rothko stands at the front of the stage facing the audience, ostensibly regarding the large-scale paintings he’s working on but really cajoling us to answer. These opening words define the play’s entire universe: what do we see? And what to we expect to get from the looking?
Playwright/screenwriter John Logan’s Red, which earned the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, takes place entirely in Rothko’s studio from 1958-’59, as the artist and his fictional assistant Ken work on the series of paintings commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building designed by architects Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It imagines Rothko’s personal struggle with the project, his desire to make art that sears the soul even though these works will be mere wall decorations for Manhattan VIP’s eating lunch and dinner. Logan dramatizes this struggle as an evolving conversation and debate between Rothko and Ken that runs from the collision of art and commerce to the different hues of a color. In one of the many incendiary rants the play gives Rothko, he inquisitively attacks Ken to clarify what he hopes to convey with the word ‘red’: “You mean scarlet? You mean crimson? You mean plum-mulberry-magenta-burgundy-salmon-carmine-carnelian-coral? Anything but ‘red’! What is ‘red’?!”
Red is a play that is intimately concerned with the differences between scarlet and crimson, with the what and how we feel while looking at art, at life, and at ourselves. It’s a play that defiantly screams from the rooftops about why art matters without making the fatal error of trying to define what art is.
Red‘s Rothko immediately demands an opinion of his interlocutor but, before getting an answer, starts qualifying the discussion. After asking Ken what he sees he encourages him to get closer, to really look, before adding:
“Be specific. No, be exact. Be exact—but sensitive. You understand? Be kind. Be a human being, that’s all I can say. Be a human being for once in your life. These pictures deserve compassion and they live or die in the eye of the sensitive viewer, they quicken only if the empathetic viewer will let them.”
Everyman resident company member Nelson’s impressively plays Rothko as a man on a solitary march through pessimism toward enlightenment. He practically recreates the abstract expressionist painter whole cloth, from the cynically stately voice to the lugubrious intelligence and the penetrating eyes—but I have to admit I had no idea just accomplished his performance was while watching it. Rothko didn’t immediately spring to mind as a character in the brain, the way other ab-ex painters do: Jackson Pollock was the macho peacock relieving his bladder in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace, Willem de Kooning the Dutch rake who came to America to chase our women. Rothko in my brain was the serious one, the Jewish one, the suicide. The gravity of the paintings came to my mind, no doubt profoundly shaped by a visit as a teenager to the Rothko Chapel, but not the man.
Spend a moment with the BBC documentary Mark Rothko: The Power of Art, which includes includes black-and-white studio footage of and an interview with the velvety-voiced, sanguine Rothko, and you begin to get a sense of how wonderfully nuanced Nelson’s performance is. Mimicry, of course, isn’t required of a great performance, but appreciating how little I knew about Rothko gave Red‘s themes a lingering, resonating bite. The story Red tells is one of postwar American art’s familiarly enigmatic anecdotes: Commissioned in 1958 to provide 600 square feet of paintings for the Four Seasons, in 1959 Rothko returns the commission fee and keeps the paintings. (Today the panels in the series can be found at the Tate Modern, the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Japan, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.) Exactly why he did this is sometimes considered a mystery, though during Red‘s New York run John Lahr, reviewing for the New Yorker, points out that Rothko thought the paintings were to be installed in the lobby, not the restaurant, and decided not to deliver them upon learning of their intended destination. (The magazine also provided a more extended archeology of the situation online.)
Red is less concerned with reporting facts than imagining what led Rothko to make the call to return the commission, an act that casts a long shadow. Why? For all the ways Red imagines Rothko might’ve wrestled with himself during the process. The play is basically a good barstool argument about art across generational lines, with Rothko as the jaded elder and Ken the youthful idealist, but they represent an artist fighting with himself: about how he feels about light, about how he feels about his peers, and, most importantly, about what he thinks about his own work. Making things and letting them loose into the world is a cruelly rewarding way to spend that blink between birth and death, and Red compresses a lifetime of creative anxiety into a single decision: to sell or not to sell? That’s hardly a fair reduction of Rothko’s life and oeuvre, but it makes for lively, heated arguments about light, color, money, class, television, music, and vanity. It’s like two rival football teams fans fighting over everything and nothing; only in this case, it’s art that turns seemingly reasonable men into bloviating hotheads.
Berryman, making his second 2013 appearance with Everyman following his exceptional turn in Topdog/Underdog, makes a worthy foil for Nelson’s Rothko, moving from being somewhat cowed by the older artist’s raised-voice intensity to finding the confidence in his own ideas through their contentious discussions, which at times reach an almost musical counterpoint of obstinate opinions, such as when the pair debate the merits of then-emerging pop artists:
Ken: You ever get tired of telling people what art is?
Rothko: No, not ever. Until they listen. Better you should tell me? Fuck off.
Ken: You’re just mad because the Barbarians are at the gate. And, whattaya know, people seem to like the Barbarians.
Rothko: Of course they like them. That’s the goddamned point! You know what people like? Happy, bright colors. They want things to be pretty. They want things to be beautiful—Jesus Christ, when someone tells me one of my pictures is ‘beautiful’ I want to vomit.
Ken: What’s wrong with—?
Rothko: Pretty? Beautiful? Nice? Fine? That’s our life now! Everything’s ‘fine.’ We put on the funny nose and glasses and slip on the banana peel and the TV makes everything happy and everyone’s laughing all the time, it’s all so goddamned funny, it’s our constitutional right to be amused all the time, isn’t it? We’re a smirking nation, living under the tyranny of “fine.” How are you? Fine. How was your day? Fine. How are you feeling? Fine. How did you like the painting? Fine. Want some dinner? Fine. Well let me tell you, everything is not fine.
It’s a bravura exchange, and it succinctly hits that paralyzing fear that haunts any artist, writer, musician, actor, whatever, at some point: not that the work isn’t good, but that it’s as common as tap water. Being disliked or even loathed isn’t failure; the ambivalence of mediocrity is. And director Donald Hicken, Nelson, and Berryman successfully foreground how, for Red‘s Rothko, what’s at stake in the Four Season’s commission isn’t reputation, or feeling like a sell-out, or some other social device that turns artists into commodities. It’s personal. It’s intimate. It’s about what he sees when looking at his own work. His eyes are the first that will judge his work but not the last, reinforcing Red‘s probing reminder that looking is a constant dialog between the present and the past, the feelings and the intellect, the heart and the head.
* Author Bret McCabe is a haphazard tweeter, epic-fail blogger, and a Baltimore-based arts and culture writer.