At the beginning of Red, John Logan’s hit play currently onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the painter Mark Rothko (Brian Dykstra) stands at center stage, staring toward the audience. But he’s not seeing the audience — he’s looking at a painting on the not-visible fourth wall of his studio in New York City’s Bowery, circa 1958. In fact, the dimly lit studio is filled with large paintings, most of them glowing with patches of hot red and menacing black. He attention is riveted on his works. (We learn later that Rothko believes that “most of painting is thinking.”)
His new assistant Ken (Matthew Carlson) enters but is immediately daunted by the renowned Abstract Expressionist painter. After a moment, Rothko barks, “What do you see?” That question echoes throughout Red, as the brilliant, opinionated and arrogant painter who claimed his works showed “tragedy in every brush stroke” badgers Ken, lectures to him and issues the most confounding pronouncements about life, art and the generation of artists rising up around him who he disdains: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein.
When he asks the question, Rothko is not actually seeking an objective report on what’s in Ken’s field of vision. “Be specific,” he barks. “No, be exact. Be exact — but sensitive.” He goes on, seeking to get Ken not just to see but also to think. And that’s what Logan’s dynamic, idea-filled script does to audiences.
Anyone seeing this show will walk out of the theater thinking about how an artist relates to his art, and how the world relates to what he creates. These are fascinating connections that are neither quantifiable nor predictable. In fact, they are issues that vibrate between two poles, emotion and intellect, a subject that Rothko wrestles with constantly.
When he voices an internal thought about what a painting in progress needs, Ken says, “Red.” Rothko rages at him, “Where have you earned the right to exist here with me and these things you don’t understand?! ‘RED?!’ You want to paint the thing?! Go ahead — here’s red!” He flings packets of pigment at Ken, shouting, “And red! And red! And red! I don’t even know what that means! What does ‘red’ mean to me? You mean scarlet? You mean crimson? You mean plum-mulberry-magenta-burgundy-salmon-carmine-carnelian-coral? Anything but ‘red!’ What is ‘RED?!’”
Dykstra’s Rothko is a vain, fearful, explosive genius who shows increasing doubt about the commission he has undertaken for murals for the new Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City’s Seagram’s Building. As he and Ken work on these canvases, we listen to them debate philosophies. Carlson’s earnest but hip assistant overcomes his worshipful awe of Rothko and begins to challenge him. As actors, Dykstra and Carlson bring to life in these two men's theories of art that could be dry and academic. At the Playhouse, they have a raw, throbbing physical presence. In one scene, they energetically apply the base coat of red to a blank canvas, splashing and spreading paint at light speed, choreographed to a thundering, passionate opera aria. It’s two minutes of amazing, breathless, almost sexual energy. (In fact, Rothko lights a cigarette once they are finished.)
Red portrays this thought-provoking interaction with talking and arguing, pontificating and debating, and under Steven Woolf’s focused direction, the production flies by faster than I could imagine. Michael Ganio’s grungy set, washed with murky light (Phil Monat designed the lighting) that Rothko preferred to daylight, is a world unto itself. After you’ve spent 90 minutes in the studio, you’ll have many new ways to answer the question, “What do you see?”
RED , presented by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Nov. 12. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.