At the Threshold of the Divine: Seeing “Red”


“What do you see?” More of a probing, raw demand than a question, the opening line in John Logan’s 2009 two actor bio-drama about American abstract painter Mark Rothko, delivered by the artist at lights up, his back to audience, demands full attention. It should rivet an audience’s eyes to the huge blank canvas upstage center, awaiting the master’s brush.  “Red” gets described as a “static” play filled with bombastic pronouncements about art’s nature and truth by the painter and combative intellectualized sparring with an increasingly alienated youthful assistant, Ken. Yet, the very scope and style of the impassioned, frenzied, visceral act of creation during the performance should fill the hall with an intriguing, throbbing vitality at operatic scale, reflecting the actual work of the genius Mark Rothko. The New York production earned six Tony Awards for its version, including: Best Play of 2010, Best Featured Actor in a Play for Eddie Redmayne as Ken, Best Direction of a Play for Michael Grandage, Best Scenic and Lighting Design and Best Sound. It also garnered the 2010 Drama League Award for Distinguished Production of a Play, and Alfred Molina won the Distinguished Performance Award for his portrayal of Mark Rothko. “Should” is the key word for Dallas Theater Center’s current production. In Big D it’s more “blush” than “red” in the Rothko sense of hue.

“What do you see?” Here’s how Rothko once described viewers’ reactions to his paintings: “…the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you… are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.” Deem this the height of self-impressed egotism? Actually, it’s true.

As a college student in Houston, I liked to borrow my roommate’s bicycle and pedal around the residential neighborhood near the university. One sunny afternoon, I stumbled on an unusual sand-colored chapel as I rolled down a sleepy street. There was a name I didn’t know on a plaque, and the door was unlocked. I parked the bike and ambled inside, curious. Nobody else there, total silence. There were fourteen massive paintings on display, dimly lit under a skylight: three walls with triptychs, the other five with single paintings. I felt I had stepped into an expanding universe. Dark and abstract, the paintings radiated an unworldly vitality. I sat on one of the chapel’s eight benches and experienced a rush of intense emotion; extreme joy spilled into profound grief. I wanted to laugh and shout and dance; the paintings commanded me to be still. I don’t know how long I sat there swept away, but I realized I was weeping. I had stumbled into viewing Mark Rothko’s finest work, his “impenetrable fortresses of color” at the internationally celebrated, non-denominational Rothko Chapel.

I believe that John Logan’s play has the potential to recreate that intensity of emotional experience. Of the New York production, Marilyn Stasio, in her 4/1/2010 “Variety” review said, “The turning point of the play, staged with operatic grandeur by (Michael) Grandage, is so intense that anyone who leaves the theater should be shot.” As much as I hoped it would, DTC’s production never took me to that emotional point, not for one solitary moment.

“What do you see?” Heaven forbid that any critic should tell a theatre company how to cast a show. Instead, I offer a list of talented regional artists’ names for rhetorical contemplation: Andrews Cope, Joey Folsom, Justin Locklear, Alex Organ, Christopher Piper, Garret Storms, Montgomery Sutton, Christian Taylor, Austin Tindle, Drew Wall, Clay Wheeler, Jeff Swearingen. The artist assistant Ken in “Red” isn’t the play’s flashier role, but it won the Tony for Eddie Redmayne. The play’s conflict arises out of Rothko’s resistance to change and his assistant Ken’s emerging focus on the future. Rothko rails and pontificates (often actual quotes); the artist assistant has a subtle but clearly defined character arc to follow, pushing away from the master artist. He must carry the audience along with him as he engages Rothko in debate and establishes his own perspective and identity, or there isn’t much reason for him to exist. I could not tell what Jordan Brodess wants or feels in his portrayal of Ken in DTC’s production. Does he come to love Rothko, or just endure the relentless brow-beatings for the money? The only thing that indicates time’s passage is the his frequent clothing change from one Rob Petrie-like 1960’s outfit to another; he demonstrates little evolution across the play’s arc in demeanor, tone or assertiveness. I never got to experience the tragedy of watching Ken leave Rothko behind in grim despair, foreshadowing his suicide. I never recognized from Brodess’ performance that as much as the assistant idolizes the great artist, he has to move on. I got that from reading the play afterwards and from listening to a friend’s description of seeing the play in London and New York, where some in the audience wept openly.

Kieran Connolly (Rothko) is a Brierley Resident Acting Company member. I’ve now seen him perform in four or five DTC shows, and he puzzles me. He yells, a lot. In “Red” he starts yelling early in the first scene. He never showed much else in the way of emotional expression in the performance I saw. He also has a peculiar habit of spitting out the final “t” or “d” at the end of some words, almost adding an extra syllable (as in “credit-t”). It’s very distracting, an odd habit in a professional actor.

Next time you are in Houston, spend time at the Rothko Chapel. Reflect on the majesty and emotional power of the paintings. Don’t hold back the tears. “What do you see? Tragedy in every brush stroke….”

Joel Ferrell directed “Red”; Bob Lavallee designed the “studio” set, and Jennifer Ables designed costumes.

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm – 92 cm (45 in – 36 in). Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

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