Believe it or not, there was once a time when the artists who worried about selling out were the ones who actually stood to receive a decent offer. That's the quandary that follows the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko in John Logan's Tony-winning Red, now making its area debut at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater.
Hired in 1958 to produce a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant, Rothko comes to fret that he may be surrendering his “children” to the worst sort of environment: a shrine to modern vacuity in which they will be held hostage to the poisonous notion of art as a lifestyle accessory.
His sounding board for these and other pressing concerns is his assistant, Ken, who over the course of two years weathers Rothko's grandiose fulminations over life, art, sincerity and everything else the aging artist assumes the younger man cannot possibly understand. As they work together in Rothko's New York studio, the color red emerges as a symbol of the genuineness of emotion toward which the painter constantly strives, while black signifies the onrush of a new society that, he feels, clings desperately to empty experiences. The ebony spaces Rothko fears are also a proudly unsubtle signifier of the congenital depression he knows will one day move him to take his own life. (He did, in 1970.)
The OST production is tough to warm to at first, due chiefly to the oddly deliberate enunciation actor John Herrera attaches to Rothko's every syllable. Even in the midst of a throwaway observation, he sounds like a man who is not experiencing life but reciting it. If the idea is to convey that even Rothko's mildest utterances are the preplanned confrontations of an inveterate control freak (and the script certainly offers evidence of same), then director Patrick Flick has had Herrera go too far with it. The tactic flattens some of the best jokes playwright Logan uses to ease the audience into the verbal battles that are to come.
Once those battles commence in earnest, Herrera is on more comfortable ground. (Brian Cox as Robert McKee in Spike Jonze's film Adaptation is one blustery analogue that springs immediately to mind.) Meanwhile, actor Buddy Haardt strikes some effective notes as Ken. His soliloquies of self-defense, in which the character predictably but satisfyingly reveals that he is nobody's blank canvas, are among the production's best moments. (There's also a fine bit of stagecraft – introduced in the script as such – in which Eric Haugen's lighting suddenly throws Bob Phillips' studio set into stark relief, demonstrating that, in 2-D art as well as in theater, environment is all.)
There isn't much room for an honest-to-goodness relationship to develop here: Rothko's regard of Ken as a mere functionary takes care of that, and Herrera's inadequate attention to his character's quieter moments seals the deal. Yet the play keeps us involved by unpeeling layer after layer of conceptual sophistication. Not content to settle for the pat conceit of a bona fide visionary inveighing against an arrogantly ignorant greenhorn, Logan uses the Ken character to expose the egomania and hypocrisy that underlie Rothko's full-throttle snobbery. If one disdains the prospect of one's paintings being bought as conversation pieces by social climbers who don't understand them, why not simply refuse to take the money? Basically, Ken gets to articulate everything we in the audience have ever wanted to say to a pretentious artiste. But the play doesn't stop at offering catharsis to the groundlings: It moves gradually toward the suggestion that Rothko's aesthetic principles may be a largely generational matter – the revulsion a “principled” artist feels for his would-be inheritors roughly equaling the zeal with which he himself displaced the crew that came before.
And that, too, is a lie. The final, sick joke behind Red is our ultimate recognition that Rothko's nightmares of obsolescence aren't so much self-serving as naively limited in scope. Fifty-odd years later, the idea of someone like him being co-opted by the machine is a moot point, as the figure of the artist has all but vanished from public life. Nobody gets glowing coverage in the mainstream media for advancing a bold new visual paradigm; the man on the street doesn't even know which paradigm is currently in place, or if one even exists. Status has come to be invested in consumer products that were designed expressly as such. It saves everybody time and trouble. The blackness Rothko dreaded didn't just swallow the red he so prized, but the green that tempted him as well.
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