By Pat Launer
“Red” does not paint a pretty picture of Mark Rothko. John Logan’s dazzling 2009 drama about the acclaimed abstract expressionist shows him, in the late 1950s, to be an irascible, vindictive, autocratic, pedantic narcissist.
But somehow, in the excellent South Coast Repertory production, sensitively directed by David Emmes, beneath all the bluster and bravado, we find that Rothko really does have a heart.
Credit the consummate actor Mark Harelik, who has said he was “born to play this role.” There is a palpable depth and a surprising scintilla of compassion in Harelik’s portrayal that I hadn’t noticed the two other times I’ve seen the play — including the performance of Alfred Molina, who originated the role in London and reprised it in New York and Los Angeles. Something else that Harelik brings to the character is a subtle Jewish sensibility. Several times in the text, Rothko refers to his Jewishness, or his early childhood in Russia (his given name was Markus Rotkovich), watching the Cossacks kill and destroy. I felt the pain of that history (and his constant awareness of anti-Semitism) like I’d never felt it before.
And when this manic, volatile Rothko stands in his New York studio and listens to the graphic, grisly story of the death of his assistant’s parents, he stands stock still. He really listens.
In this production, the fictional assistant, Ken, excellently portrayed by Paul David Story, unequivocally rises to the occasion when Rothko incites him. His outburst at the bombastic bully is powerful; he shows that he can be as fiery and articulate as his boss. He calls Rothko a hypocrite, and much worse. A sellout. A man of “titanic self-absorption” who’s outlived his time.
The impetus for this explosion is Rothko’s acceptance of a commission for a series of murals for the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue, designed by renowned architects Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe. It’s his most extensive commission to date, and he’s accepted a $35,000 advance. But then he visits the site of the installation — the swank, chichi Four Seasons restaurant, and he realizes that this would be a completely disastrous place for his paintings, where they’ll compete with the clanking of silverware, and just be backdrop to the philistines’ need to see and be seen. Rothko believed that his paintings should be a totally immersive experience (“You need to get close. .. Let it pulsate… Let it embrace you… Lean into it… Meet it halfway”).
Most of the provocative words in the text, about painting and art and legacy, are taken directly from Rothko’s writings or speeches. He was eloquent and often prolix. And fiercely, intolerantly opinionated.
But we, like Ken, learn a tremendous amount from him. About the life of an artist, with its obsessive attention to the work. And the concern for who sees it, and how, and where.
Ken, a passionate admirer of Jackson Pollock, Rothko’s perceived adversary, represents the next wave, including Warhol and Rauschenberg, who will supplant Rothko just as he and his peers swept away the cubists (though Rothko is still considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century).
Scenic designer Ralph Funicello has created a wonderful workplace for all this pontificating, with the huge, dark paintings (exclusively red and black for this project, and in this stage of Rothko’s career and advancing depression), beautifully lit by Tom Ruzika.
The arguments are searingly intellectual. But there’s also an undeniable fervor and zeal — even in the priming of a canvas (a seminal moment in the play), that engages a deep emotional response to the inimitable work and the tortured artist who created it.
- “Red” continues through Feb. 21 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
- Performances are Tuesday-Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
- NOTE: ASL-interpreted performance on Feb. 20 at 2:30 p.m.; post-show discussion on Feb. 9
- Tickets (starting at $22) are available at 714-708-5555 or online at www.scr.org
- Running time: 90 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.
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