Harold Rosenberg, one of Abstract Expressionism’s greatest art critics, once said, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
Never have his words been more relevant than in John Logan’s 2010 Tony Award-winning play, Red, which turns the creation of art into a theatrical event. The play explores the feverish relationship between the artist and his art.
Set in Mark Rothko’s studio in 1958, Dallas Theater Center’s production of Red allows the audience to connect with the artist intimately, in spite of a contrived script. Logan’s play depicts a fabricated relationship between the curmudgeonly genius, Rothko (Kieran Connolly), and his new studio assistant, Ken (Jordan Brodess).
Logan’s play depicts a fabricated relationship between the curmudgeonly genius and his new studio assistant.
Through Ken’s unadjusted eyes, the audience glimpses the pair’s conflict with the Abstract Expressionist movement. Where Rothko sees vivacity and movement, Ken sees the color red.
In a hasty reply, Ken admits Jackson Pollock is his favorite painter of Rothko’s contemporaries and, later in the play, rants about Rothko’s fall from relevance. As a foil for Rothko’s pretension, Ken is meant to balance the otherwise self-indulgent dialogue. Instead, Logan’s script produces little more than an introductory art history lesson — airing pretensions without a critical discussion about how bombastic tendencies were precisely what Pop Art rejected.
Logan understands the universal obsession with the artist. For DTC’s production, scenic designer Bob Lavallee transformed the ninth floor of the Wyly Theatre into a shrine to the craft. Mammoth replicas of the Four Seasons commissions drape the walls above the audience; at the front of the room, a blank canvas intercedes with inspiration.
And Rothko spends most of the play pontificating. Much of his dialogue is taken from direct quotes; some of it is imagined based on later events. Because he always spoke with precision, Rothko is the perfect theatrical protagonist.
Finally, he paints. Connolly and Brodess leap into motion, coating the canvas in red. This sudden burst of animation reflects the experience of a long gaze at one of Rothko’s paintings: Stare at it long enough, and the lines appear to take on a perpetual motion. This manifestation is why the play works.
Logan’s theatrical portrait is only as frustrating as modern art itself — at once modest and pretentious, smart and simple, black and white. And red.