"Red" is a play about Mark Rothko. And it isn’t. It’s about art and business; the business of art; and the art of doing business. It’s about accepting reality. It’s about facing mortality. It’s about the eternal and unanswerable question-what is art?
Mark Rothko’s studio is the setting for the entire 90-minute, intermission-less, two-character show. Dialogue, not action, is the focus. The script does not set out to achieve historical accuracy. Instead, "Red" is a vehicle for a message, or at least a discussion, of which Rothko, in his time, would have very much been a part.
The show opens with Rothko hiring an assistant. The assistant, Ken, is a device as opposed to the portrayal of an actual person. The rest of the show occurs over two years’ time, encompassing a number of days in the studio all while Rothko is completing a commission for the Four Seasons Restaurant, through which he ends up deciding not to go.
Therein lies the crux.
The script can be slow at times and even repetitive. But the point is well taken. Can you be a successful artist or does selling work instantly turn it from art to commercialism? Is the only kind of artist a starving artist? And, as an artist, how can one come to terms with becoming a thing of the past as the new encroaches?
On the walls hang copies of Rothko’s work and during the show, the Rothko and Ken characters cover a large canvas with a base of paint. It is impossible to ignore the fact that Ken is so integrally involved in this act. Many have taken issue with artists like Dale Chihuly for having others do the physical execution -- in his case, glass blowing -- even when the vision remains his own.
And, yet, here is Ken, the assistant, a self-proclaimed artist in his own right, painting with Rothko -- the base color, anyway. This is a happening that appears to be based in truth. And so another question arises. Is it art if someone other than the artist has a hand in creating it?
The Renaissance masters had many painters working under them. Is their work not art? If it is, does it need to be attributed appropriately? (i.e. The School of Rothko). If it is attributed, is it as valuable if it wasn’t done by the hand of the master? Is it indeed still art or does it then become craft?
There is no question, however, of the performers’ talent. Kieran Connolly is stunning as Mark Rothko and Jordan Brodess is remarkable as Ken; so much so that you can literally watch the latter mature from the boy he was when he began working for Rothko to the man he emerges as two years later.
It says a great deal that two people can command a stage for ninety minutes without interruption, and they do. Why it works is because of the immense tension and sadness and fear and unknowing that is portrayed. Both men are questioning their place in the art world now and moving forward. Both men wonder about the future and deeply examine the past. And both actors succeed in leaving the audience raw and wondering at the show’s end.
The set is sparse and effective, reading much like the actual place in which Rothko is said to have painted. The audience is all but in the show as they sit in the studio in which the actors perform. But there is one grave flaw in terms of the production: the way in which the audience in brought into the theater.
It is general admission seating but the tickets have group numbers on them. So, audience members are mobbed together in no logical order and brought up the elevator twenty or so at a time. It is uncivilized, annoying, uncomfortable and, quite frankly, tacky.
Dallas Theater Center sets the bar when it comes to remarkable theater in Dallas. This method is beneath them and sets the wrong tone for the production.
Once you have a chance to take a deep breath though and melt into the production, you will be glad you bothered with the Southwest Airlines-esque nonsense. You will be enveloped by the propositions that the playwright, John Logan, puts forth and the way in which the actors play them out for our consideration.
There are no answers, of course, to any of the questions raised in the show. They only invoke more questions. Who determines what is art? What part does time play in the judging of art? And how much of a role does the viewer play versus how much the artist? The one thing that is clear by the end of the performance is that "Red" is certainly a work of art that deserves audiences’ consideration.
Often the power in art is the questions it raises rather than the answers it provides.