In 1958, Mark Rothko, in his mid-50s, vastly successful and in the final years of transition towards abstraction in his painting, undertook one of the most prestigious and lucrative commissions ever offered to an artist. At the behest of architects Phillip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, Rothko began work on his Seagram Murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Rothko created these massive, magnificent canvases, rectangular fields of reds and black, in his old gymnasium studio in the Bowery, New York City.
Intensely serious, brilliant, arrogant, fiercely opinionated, and obsessive, Rothko painted at least 30 of these murals, though only seven were required, but he eventually repudiated the commission, and returned the advance money. The famous Seagram Murals today hang in the Tate Museum in London, the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Japan.
John Logan’s two-character drama Red (2009), originally produced at the Donmar Warehouse in London with Alfred Molina in the role of Rothko, then brought to Broadway the following year, and now through October 4 at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, portrays the artist in his studio over a period of a few months in 1958-59. The play, winner of six Tony Awards, including Best Play, is about the relationship between the artist and his work, and also about the growing, conflict-ridden connection between Rothko and his young assistant. Rothko’s work and increasingly dark aesthetic focused on engaging with and enveloping the viewer, and Mr. Logan’s play also attempts to embrace the audience and explore the relationship between the artistic work and the spectator.
Felicitously scheduled to coincide with an exhibit of abstract expressionist works, including a painting by Rothko, at the Princeton University Art Museum, this production of Red provides, in five scenes without intermission, a rich theoretical discussion of modern art, a master class of sorts, and a glimpse into the world of Rothko’s atelier. Red is also an intriguing human drama and a compelling story of a young artist coming of age through his struggles with the overpowering shadow of his controlling mentor/father figure.
Mr. Logan’s dramatic device here of presenting Rothko and his work through his interactions and dialogue with his young assistant Ken is a rewarding stratagem that both reveals the man and his art and tells a dramatically engaging story — occasionally contrived and not quite historically accurate, but mostly convincing and full of striking truths.
The Theatre Intime Princeton University undergraduate company, under the direction here of junior Oge Ude, has taken on this serious, challenging script, with focus, thoughtful intelligence, creativity and commitment that befit the subject matter and the artist they are portraying.
John Fairchild, as Rothko, making the stretch to portray this domineering icon more than twice his own age, does, unsurprisingly, lack the gravitas of this fearsome artist. The moments when Rothko should be roaring are somewhat toned down here, but Mr. Fairchild succeeds in bringing to life the profound seriousness and passion of the character. Lightly bearded with shaved head and glasses, short-tempered, nervous and full of pent-up energy, he makes this character, in his anger, despair and transcendent intensity, both credible and thoroughly absorbing.
As the new assistant Ken, Ryan Gedrich provides a strong counterpart to the powerful Rothko. From the opening line, Rothko’s “What do you see?” followed by his first diatribe/sermon, Ken listens and, throughout the play, increasingly finds his own voice, develops his own independent character and identity as an artist, despite the overweening dominance of his dogmatic mentor. Mr. Gedrich’s depiction of this young man coming of age, who, as it turns out, has a dark secret of his own, is dynamically interesting and sympathetic, deftly providing the audience with an illuminating perspective on Rothko the man, Rothko the artist and his realm of abstract expressionism. “This is the first time you’ve existed,” Rothko tells Ken after his protégé, for the first time in their mounting Oedipal conflict, challenges Rothko, fights back, and asserts himself. Besides being a counterbalance to the monumental Rothko, Ken also speaks for the new generation of artists — Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and others — whom Rothko sees as threats to his supremacy.
Becoming an integral part of this production between scenes, sometimes on stage and sometimes in the aisles, is a six-person modern dance troupe: Peter Deffeback, Selah Hampton, Kamber Hart, Casey Ivanovich, Tess Marchant and Glenna Yu. Contributing to the abstract expressionism of the style, theme, and subject matter of the rest of the production, the dancers also interact with the paint, and in paint-splattered t-shirts and fiery red light they reflect the tension and movement in the paintings and in the psychological struggles of the drama. Less skilled dancers or a less subtle, sensitive, sophisticated director could make this choreographic addition to the play an intrusion or distraction, but here the dance interludes are both riveting and appropriately complementary to the human drama at center stage.
Original, mostly atonal music by Sam Kaseta is also highly effective in establishing the dark, unsettling tone and mood of the piece. Marissa Applegate’s unit set design, with scenic design by David White and lighting by Alana Jaskir, is realistic, detailed, and believable in creating Rothko’s cluttered gymnasium studio with vivid, specific details: paint cans, brushes, bottles of Scotch, a phonograph and records, stovetop, phone, and, most importantly, large representations of three of Rothko’s canvases in red with black lines. The lighting appropriately remains dim throughout most of the play, as Rothko himself demanded dim lighting in attempting to control the environment in which his work would be seen.
Rothko orders his assistant Ken to read Freud, Jung, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. (The battle in the work of art and in life is always the battle of Greek tragedy, the battle between the order and reason of Apollo and the irrational passion and energy of Dionysus.) The references here to artists, writers, and thinkers are abundant. The 90-minute play, among other things, is certainly a sort of master class for the audience. Rothko’s question, “What do you see?” at both the beginning and end of the play, as he looks at the imaginary fourth-wall painting hanging in front of the audience, is a crucial question for Ken and for us. We too are the work. It is our class, and we too must accept the invitation to become immersed and enlightened in our encounters with the artist’s creation.
Theatre Intime’s production of John Logan’s “Red” will run for one more weekend with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, October 2 and 3, and at 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 4, in the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. For tickets and information call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.theatreintime.org.