Tuesday, October 4, 2011

"Red" A Play Of Ideas, Beautifully Performed

"Maybe I'm a dinosaur talking.  Maybe I'm a dinosaur sucking up the oxygen from you cunning little mammals hiding in the bushes waiting to take over.  Maybe I'm speaking a lost language unknown to your generation.  But a generation that does not aspire to seriousness, to meaning, is unworthy to walk in the shadow of those who have gone before, I mean those who have struggled and surmounted, I mean those who have aspired...."
(--Mark Rothko in John Logan's "Red")

John Logan's Tony-winning "Red", now playing at Chicago's Goodman Theater, is a 2-character dialogue about art and ideas, that is inspiring, exciting, and unnerving.  It is a play for artists, consumers and appreciators of art, and art critics (or anyone who aspires to any of these.) 

The magnificent Edward Gero plays abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, at the height of his popularity (and controversy), circa 1958.  Into his life walks Ken, (the lithe and boyish Patrick Andrews), a young painter who has applied for the job as Rothko's assistant.  Ken, a fictional foil that Logan created to give Rothko a voice for his turmoil, listens to Rothko's philosophy, tries to get Rothko to notice him and his own artistic efforts, and then angrily challenges him for selling out. 

As the play opens, Rothko, whose art is a statement against banality, has just accepted a commission by the Four Seasons Restaurant to paint murals for the walls of the newly-opened establishment. Rothko's disheveled and grungy studio is the setting for this play.

An artist and his new young assistant.  A master and a novice.  Employer and employee. 

They proclaim themselves, yet struggle to understand each other. They become inextricably entwined, and yet violently resist one another.  It's a tug of war with Art as the object of their tugging, each one holding tight, each testing the strength of his sensibilities in an ever-more dramatic and heated contest of wills and opinion.

That is "Red."

An opening monologue describes the best way to "see" a painting (or most any other creative work:)

"Stand closer...You've got to get close. Let it pulsate.  Let it work on you. Closer. (Not) too close.  There. Let it spread out. Let it wrap its arms around you; let it embrace you, filling your peripheral vision so nothing else exists or or has ever existed or will ever exist.  Let the picture do its work--But work with it.  Meet it halfway...Engage with it!...  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. That is what they cry out for.  That is why they were created.  That is what they deserve."
(--Mark Rothko in John Logan's "Red")

Logan may have written this play to challenge his own place in the artistic pantheon of writers. In awe of the giants who have gone before who inspired him, he must come to terms with the changes in taste and style and technology that dictate new forms of art, and new ways of creating art, that could render himself obsolete.  I, too, struggle with this notion.  Perhaps most people who are creative today must confront this idea more and more.

The play raises many questions to ponder.  Does the "new" in art render that which came before obsolete?  Can one subvert history without knowing history?  Can one create art without knowing one's place in the artistic continuum?  Is true art always "significant"?

"You know, not everything has to be so goddamn IMPORTANT all the time! Not every painting has to rip your guts and expose your soul!  Not everyone wants art that actually HURTS!  Sometimes you just want a fucking still life or landscape or soup can or comic book!....." 
"...You're just mad because the Barbarians are at the gate.  And, whattaya know, people seem to like the Barbarians."
(--Ken in John Logan's "Red")

(Mark Rothko)

I suspect Logan leans closer Rothko's view; the dialogue he has written for him is sure and strong.  Logan works hard to reconcile himself to new ideas about art, to adopt them so as to remain "relevant".  Yet, while Ken's monologues are delivered with much volume, I could not be sure if Logan was as convincing with these ideas, or believed in them as much.  (Warhol is used as an example of the cutting edge at the time, and his mention gets a few ironic laughs, but I wasn't sure if it was a fair example.)

Still,  Logan accurately describes the fear of obsolescence as a kind of death, as "the black swallowing the red", of "being weighed in the balance and found wanting".

I loved watching this play.  In spite of a tiny loss of conviction toward the end, when Rothko seems to have capitulated to Ken and his desire to stomp on Rothko's artistic demise, I admired and appreciated the audacity of a play about intangible things, set in a artist's messy studio, and played impeccably by two able actors.  I felt as though I had discovered a treasure box of valuable items that I thought might be swept away forever in the tide of modernity. 

I loved how the play introduces shadings from Rothkos' life without dragging it into simple chronology.  For instance, in a scene late in the play,  Ken finds Rothko drunk, his arms dripping with red paint, in a subtle allusion to Rothko's actual demise, from suicide, and having been found by a young assistant.

Viewers can revel in discussions about art vs. "business", about the way artists love their works like children, about excess vs. restraint, about Michelangelo and Pollock, and about collectors who buy art to match their decor; but, like Rothko's art, these discussions pulsate, and are never dry.

As Rothko, Edward Gero commands the role with a terrific voice and a close resemblance to the artist.  He makes these words his own; he exudes passion and menace, and actual affection for the paintings that he refers to as "blind children being turned loose in a room full of razor blades."  In the role of Ken, with no real-life counterpart, Patrick Andrews creates a believable character, moves well on stage (I loved watching him as he and Gero primed a canvas) and puts some real strength into his delivery.  Andrews often drains himself of gesture, allowing his vocal inflections to carry shades of meaning. 

Personally, I took comfort in and found inspiration from Rothko's point of view as expressed by Logan in this play.  His attitudes can be easily applied to all arts, to anyone who celebrates their highest humanity by seeking the fullest, deepest experience art can provide....even to someone who enjoys writing about film:

"You have a lot to learn, young man. Philosophy. Theology. Literature. Poetry. Drama. History. Archaeology. 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 your past you must know your past."
(--Mark Rothko in John Logan's "Red")

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