Red: A Portrait of the Conflicted Artist
In real life, the black swallowed the red: Darkness flooded over abstract impressionist Mark Rothko, and he committed suicide in 1970 at the age of sixty-six. But John Logan’s two-man play Red, onstage now at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, doesn’t dwell on the tragedy to come, at least not openly. Instead, it vividly paints Rothko in all shades, staging in one simple act the artist’s manic ups and downs and fierce struggle against obsoletion.
It doesn’t tell the whole story, no. But in the quickest hour-and-a-half known to theater, Gamm’s Red aptly explores the depths of a man so conflicted by his own commoditization — owning “a Rothko” vs. owning a painting by Rothko — that he spirals from crass vanity to pitiable self-deprecation to incomprehensible rage, sometimes within seconds.
In order to heighten Rothko’s rumored volatility, Logan introduced a fictional assistant named Ken into a significant moment in the artist’s life — the late 1950s as he tackles a commissioned series of red, black and brown murals for the newly constructed Four Seasons restaurant, a playground for New York City’s elite.
Marc Dante Mancini’s wide-eyed, boyish Ken is an excellent foil to Fred Sullivan Jr.’s ferocious Rothko. At the start, the interactions between the two men are comedic — a simple feat for Sullivan, a riotous actor who calls Trinity Rep home. Rothko is difficult and rambling, and Ken shudders cartoonishly in his shadow. But before the audience carries out a full and hearty laugh, a switch is flipped and Sullivan turns red-faced with aggravation. Or is it artistic passion?
Sullivan’s Rothko is a convincingly arrogant, stalking, neurotic creature who succumbs to bouts of shrieking madness over what his art means, what art should mean. In strict opposition to what collectors want and popular young artists represent, he roars, “I am here to stop your heart. I am here to make you think. I am not here to make pretty pictures.”
But after two years of fetching Chinese, stretching canvas and stirring paint, Ken confidently grasps the inner-workings of his employer. He calls Rothko on the hypocrisy of the Four Seasons commission: “The high priest of modern art is painting a wall in the temple of consumption. You rail against commercialism in art, but you’re taking the money.” He calls Rothko on his vanity: “Nothing is good enough for you, not even the people who buy your paintings.” And, lastly, he calls Rothko on his high-and-mighty criticism of pop art: “At least Andy Warhol gets the joke.”
Red provides a glimpse into the artist’s life, but it also explores mortality and the artist’s impending death. Like the reds and blacks of Rothko’s murals, the two men clash, silently threatening to engulf one another in a fight between successive generations of twentieth-century artists. It's not an earth-shattering battle, but Sullivan and Mancini sure make it feel like one.
Red is onstage through December 16. Tickets are $36 and $45. Call 723-4266 or visit gammtheatre.org for more information.