RED/by John Logan/directed by Michael Grandage/Mark Taper Forum/through September 9
Many plays with an art theme have been written over the past decades, chief among them Yasmina Reza's Art, which shows the positive and negative effects of art on everyday life, but in John Logan's Red, it is the artist (Mark Rothko) himself who holds court, and the audience shares his space with him for two hours. This intimate exposure is awe-inspiring as lyrically expressed by John Logan, and is fiercely conveyed by Alfred Molina as Rothko and Jonathan Groff as Ken his 'employee' on the Taper stage through September 9.
Molina sits on the stage watching his painting for a half hour before the play begins, as the audience take their seats, and from the moment the lights come up and both of his hands touch the canvas, it is crystal clear that full attention will be paid to the creative process. "The waiting and thinking", he declares "are 90 percent, the brush strokes only 10 percent" of the final work.
For Mark Rothko, a Russian Jew, who prior to 1958, when the action begins, had the pleasure to keep company with Jackson Pollack among many other rebel painters, painting is a serious, life or death endeavor. But at this point in time, he is jaded and wholeheartedly disillusioned. He decries Picasso's petty commercialism, and when his student - no, Rothko is not a teacher, but an employer - when his assistant (Jonathan Groff) says it is red that he sees, Rothko berates him for his lack of discernment. "Say magenta, burgundy...but not red!" Ken has painted himself, but is so consistently humiliated by Rothko, that he never shows him his work for fear of rejection. Ken's apprenticeship covers a two-year period, as Rothko has accepted an assignment for the Seagram's Corporation to paint a series of murals which are scheduled to adorn the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram's building—a job that he never should have accepted, because it is so much against his principles. If Picasso took money, then how can he...and still remain true to form? The debate in Rothko's mind and his rantings about art are enough to torture or drive anyone insane, but Ken yearns to learn, and so he stays until...
Think of a teacher you once had, a taskmaster, who seemed impossible to deal with when you were forced to listen, but from whom, looking back, you could never have progressed to the next steps without. Rothko teaches Ken...and Ken teaches Rothko in unexpected ways, and in spite of their vast differences, the two do manage to create. One scene, in which the two cover the entire canvas in red paint - furiously, as if they were being timed, in a contest - shows, however pointless the result may seem, just how fruitful a joint effort can be... In spite of the coldness and seeming lack of humanity from Rothko throughout, which shows up in the stark red and black blocks in his murals, some change seems inevitable, no matter the extent.
The acting from both Molina and Groff is nothing short of miraculous. Rothko's fire may be about to go out, but Molina keeps him burning down to the last dying embers, and Groff never makes Ken a victim, but fills every action, every pause with purposeful meaning. Director Michael Grandage makes every angle of the huge space come to life with activity, and it is the work...taking down and putting up canvases, mixing paint...that makes us feel the creative process, or at least the efforts to preserve something holy, pure within the shrine that is, in fact, a mere factory, as it'were.
Christopher Oram's set is incredibly vast like a canvas itself. To take it all in at once is like Rothko's advice on how to look at a painting.
As in life there is much desolation and constant fear of failure but, then again, there is a commitment to life, never selling out, that dominates the philosophy of Red, giving it universality. Red pulsates with life and hope, as the artist must await with fervor a vision of new creation.