Red, John Logan’s play chronicling the philosophy of painter Mark Rothko and his nameless assistant (listed in the program as Ken), is not really a portrait of a painter, but one of the cyclical nature of art and the relationship that older generations have with those who follow them. We are first introduced to the pair of characters when the assistant arrives in Rothko’s studio, a beautifully designed set filled with canvases and art supplies, for his first day of work. Dennis Arndt, a longtime Seattle favorite, plays the distinguished and aging Rothko, an artist quarreling with the disintegration of his art form. Rothko is wizened, stubborn, self absorbed, learned, and steadfast in his methodical and serious approach to his art. The assistant, played by Connor Toms, is precocious, idealistic, and woefully un-read according to Rothko. At first he is fearful of Rothko’s opinion and he struggles to assert any ideas deemed worthy by his employer (Rothko insists that this is what he is – not a teacher, not a friend, but an employer). He is intelligent and cynical, a typical student who grows into one who is quick to push and challenge the old guard. The interplay between the two characters drives the narrative forward.
Arndt’s Rothko is the better acted role in my opinion, but Tom’s assistant is who I am drawn to most as a student. He does not see what Rothko does, not nearly as much, but he does hold an amount of passion that is palpable. Rothko, who discusses how the “son must kill the father”, was part of the Abstract Expressionist movement. He talks about killing the art of the cubists who proceeded him. He is at odds with the pop art movement, the likes of Warhol and Lichtenstein, who he asserts are not nearly serious enough. He hates that art has become something so monotonous, hates a generation that “settles for fine”. He is clinging to his art form while it appears to be slipping away.
The assistant likes pop art and claims that life doesn’t always have to be so serious. This is the point of the pop artists, his contemporaries. He notices some of Rothko’s hypocrisy – Rothko is a man who took pleasure in “killing” the artists who came before him but can not stand to see the pop artists doing the very same thing to him. This speaks to the nature of art and of life really more than it does to the nature of Rothko. We get the sense that this has been happening since art began, and in all forms of art as well, from music to film to writing.
The differences between the two are made clear when the assistant plays a jazz record in the record player, a change of pace from the classical that is of Rothko’s choosing. As soon as Rothko hears this he immediately dismisses it as rubbish and tells the assistant to turn the record off. The best scene of the play features Rothko and his employee preparing a canvas by covering it with red paint. It is a joy to watch Rothko’s methodical approach working symbiotically with the assistants fast, haphazard strokes. This underscores the main conflict in the play – the difference between these two artists and more importantly the difference between the two generations. Eventually, the two bicker about Rothko’s current project, a series of paintings created on commission for a high priced New York restaurant to adorn the four walls. The assistant believes that this is selling out and soulless, another instance of Rothko’s hypocrisy, while Rothko claims that he is using this as an opportunity to make the wealthy clientele suffer and spoil their appetite through his deeply emotive and depressing works. Rothko eventually eats at the restaurant and subsequently demands that his paintings be returned to him. He is taken aback by the forced gaiety and soullessness, the pretentiousness and one-ups-manship that he sees. He cannot disrespect his pieces of art by keeping them in such an awful place. The pair fight, as is common throughout the play, about Rothko’s motives and ideals, about the state of his work and the state of art. As the play concludes, the assistant is fired so that he can be with his contemporaries.
Artists in all forms deconstruct their predecessors and build something new, taking from what they have learned, their classical training and knowledge, their experiences; these elements are channeled into something that hopes to become transcendent. Artists crave relevance, and lasting relevance at that. They are perfectionists. They do not rest because they are preoccupied with their art. They feel as if they have not accomplished all that there is to accomplish. Arndt’s Rothko is this way. We feel that Tom’s assistant is growing into an artist who is this way. Red takes us into the mind of an artist and the mind of a student. It causes us to reconsider the way we view art. It causes us to reconsider the progression of each generation. In a way, it has captured the transcendence that Rothko and other artists search for.
Red is beautifully written and brilliantly executed by all involved in the production at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. The sets and sound design highlight the narrative in a way that is more profound and thought provoking than any other play that I can remember seeing at the Rep. The two roles are played with aplomb, as Arndt’s Rothko captures the wise old standard of the art community while Toms is reminiscent of every art or music student who I have encountered. Apparently the reviews have been hit and miss, but I found last night’s performance to be not only the best that the Rep has put on this year, but one of the best of the last five years.
Matt Jonson ed. –
Hello all, this is Matt Jonson checking in. I found the production very moving and the paintings were pretty. Also, boots: neutral. Rosalind kinda pulls them off… Not really though. She also holds awkward eye contact. That is all.