The red and the black: Ensemble’s Mark Rothko bio-play has weighty questions on its mind

Matt Gottlieb play abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko and Shaun Anthony his put-upon young assistant in the dramatic new play at The New Vic, "Red." John Logan's play won six Tony Awards in 2010
Matt Gottlieb play abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko and Shaun Anthony his put-upon young assistant in the dramatic new play at The New Vic, “Red.” John Logan’s play won six Tony Awards in 2010

“What do you see?”

That’s the first line of John Logan’s intense two-person play “Red” that just opened at The New Vic as part of Ensemble Theatre’s current season. The man asking the question is abstract painter Mark Rothko, and although he’s asking it of the man who has turned up to be his new assistant as they stand in front of one of his paintings, he’s asking it of himself. And, no surprise, he’s asking us, too, in a play that dives energetically into questions of art, history, integrity, money, and creativity. In real life, Rothko was very secretive, with very little footage or interviews available. This biographical play brings the prickly painter to life.

The paintings in question are the ones he was commissioned by Philip Johnson to paint for the about-to-be-opened Four Seasons Restaurant in New York. At the time it was the highest ever commission paid to an artist and Rothko gladly took the money, telling himself he was somehow sticking it to the Man. But Rothko also was a man obsessed with the raw emotions elicited by his works; precisely the kind of temperament unsuited to providing background decorations.

This debate provides the backbone of “Red” as the more idealistic Ken (played here by Shaun Anthony) at first just reacts to the bombastic Rothko (a lookalike performance by Matt Gottlieb), then as he gains confidence begins to give as good as he gets.

Ken is an artist himself, and his character is based on an amalgam of assistants Rothko hired (and probably terrorized). We never see his work, and Rothko has no interest in seeing it either. He’s self-aggrandizing and self-involved, and Rothko’s studio is only about Rothko.

The painter tells Ken very early on that he is not going to be the young man’s teacher, shrink, father figure, or rabbi, only his employer. But of course, that’s not what happens. One gets the feeling that Rothko needs an assistant to mix paint and stretch canvas, but really wants a sounding board for the anxiety and despair and anger building up inside him.

“Red” takes place at an interesting time in American art, as Rothko comments. Picasso and Dali had been reduced to signing autographs on works that were pale imitations of their earlier work. They had become redundant in their own lifetimes, and Rothko takes some of the credit for crushing the Cubists and Surrealists. To him Jackson Pollock had realized he had become a commodity, and credits his car crash as a lazy act of suicide, not an accident. And for the young pop artists coming up like Warhol and Rauschenberg, well, they just represented the phony, advertising-based, nicey-nice version of American culture. He had seen Cossacks killed in front of him before his family escaped Europe. He felt things more, dammit.

To which Ken quickly points out that pop art was going to crush Rothko just like Rothko crushed Cubism. Score one for Ken.

This dynamic of aggressive Socratic dialog makes for a riveting evening if you know your art. If you haven’t heard of Rothko, have no idea about 20th century art movements, or possibly if you’ve ever looked at art and declared that your child could do it …well, “Red” might not be for you.

For those who have encountered Rothko’s work, but have no idea about the man, “Red” will also be a surprise, discovering that the man behind such calming, deep and mystical paintings liked to throw things at his assistant if he dared suggest a color. (This was the biggest gasp of the play when I saw it on Sunday — it really has the snap of violence and keeps us all wary for the rest of the play).

Ken gets an education in art and in feeling without ever sharing his own work or practicing a stroke. And so do we. There’s a lot to be learned from “Red,” the weight of history that overhangs any painter in front of a blank canvas; reading philosophy and knowing the great works in every genre and medium going back centuries; what colors mean and whether that should be personal (like Ken, who sees white as death because of a childhood tragedy) or universal (like Rothko’s black, which became more and more prominent the closer he got to his eventual death by suicide in 1970.) Perhaps the viewer might want to get a canvas or a sketchbook ready by the time one gets home; the play is inspiring.

As directed by Brian Shnipper (who directed both Ensemble’s “Opus” and “Bell, Book and Candle”), “Red” is an energetic affair with pauses for breathing room. Mr. Gottlieb and Mr. Anthony bounce ideas back and forth and when the two characters really get into it, we get swept up as well. The set design by Brian Sidney Bembridge brings Rothko’s studio to life, yet also explodes it in a way that brings out its chapel-like qualities.

And one last word: Watching two men prime a canvas with rust-red, set to the Mozart’s overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” is one the most exciting things on stage this year. Really.

RED
When: Through Sunday, June 1. 8 p.m. Wed-Saturdays. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays (no 7 p.m. show on May 25). Also 4 p.m. May 24.
Where: The New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St.
Cost: $40 – $65
Information: 965-5400 or www.ensembletheatre.com

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