Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Florida Repertory Theater Presents Red

About ten minutes into Florida Rep's production of "Red," I put my notepad and pen away and settled in to watch the show.  There was so much to think about that I didn't want to be distracted by trying to jot down lines that I particularly liked.  When I got home that evening I did something unprecedented--I ordered a copy of the play from Amazon to read on my brand spanking new Kindle Fire.   What a treat to read this incredibly exciting and thought-provoking play and have the chance to consider it at my leisure after having seen Florida Rep's outstanding performance.

Rothkos' Four Darks in Red (1958)
Currently hanging in Whitney Museum in NY
Going into the play, all that I knew was that it was about the artist Mark Rothko.  I assiduously avoided reading the reviews of the production (which was fairly challenging since that week's edition of Florida Weekly covered both the Florida Rep AND the Asolo Rep productions!)   The play is set in the late 1950s over a two year period when Rothko is painting a series of murals for the soon-to-open Four Seasons restaurant in New York.  The entire play takes place in Rothko's studio and consists of an on-going conversation between Rothko and his new assistant, Ken.

The play opens with Rothko introducing Ken to one of his paintings.  "... Let it wrap its arms around you; let it embrace you, filling even your peripheral vision so nothing else exists or has ever existed or will ever exist.  Let the picture do its work--But work with it.  Meet it halfway for God's sake!  Lean forward, lean into it.  Engage with it!... These pictures deserve compassion and they live or die in the eye of the sensitive viewer, they quicken only if the empathetic viewer will let them. ... Now, what do you see?"  These have to be some of the most intimidating words ever first spoken between an employer and employee.   And I could only imagine that Rothko might have been just a wee bit disappointed with Ken's response:  "Red."   And so, the play began.

Rothko then drills his new employee a bit for good measure, asking him, "Who is your favorite painter?"  "Jackson Pollock."  Rothko obviously sees Pollock as a rival--notwithstanding that he's dead--and pursues the conversation, asking Ken if he'd read Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy.  "No."  How could Ken possibly appreciate Pollock if he hadn't read Nietzche???  Was Ken familiar with "Freud?  Jung?  Byron? Wordworth? Aeschylus? Turgenev? Sophocles? Schopenhauer? Shakespeare?. .. Philosophy.  Theology.  Literature.  Poetry. Drama.  History.  Archeology.  Anthropology.  Mythology.  Music.  These are your tools as much as brush and pigment.  You cannot be an artist until you are civilized.  You cannot be civilized until you learn.  To be civilized is to know where you belong in the continuum of your art and your world."  (It might be worth mentioning at this point that Rothko was quite an intelligent fellow with a liberal arts education from Yale.)  Ken later reports to Rothko that he's read Birth of Tragedy (which is a tale of two Greek  gods, Dionysus and Apollo) and that he thinks he understands why Rothko wanted him to read it.  "Dionysus is the God of wine and excess; of movement and transformation.  This is Pollock:  wild; rebellious; drunken and unrestrained...Apollo is the God of order, method and boundaries.  This is Rothko:  intellectual; rabbinical; sober and restrained.  The raw experience leavened by contemplation...  He splatters paint.  You study it." Rothko scoffs at the simplicity of Ken's views, telling him that Dionysus and Apollo in fact have a symbiotic relationship and that it's the balance between the two approaches that one must strive for in art (and, by extension, in life.)

Yes, Rothko was pompous and egomaniacal, ultimately resigning his mural commission for the Four Seasons because the restaurant was crassly commercial and he wanted his work to be contemplated in a chapel, "a place of communion," not treated as an "overmantle."  (As in, "Honey, let's get a painting to put over the mantle.  It has to have some blue in it to match the sofa.")   But Rothko was also smart, and he was appropriately concerned about being displaced as Pop Art and the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were coming onto the scene.   There's no doubt that modern art is hard to understand, and one of the things I enjoyed most about "Red" was the way it put Rothko's work in the context of art history.   Throughout the play there's a great discussion of this continuum.  "We destroyed Cubism, de Kooning and me and Pollock and Barnett Newman and all the others.  We stomped it to death...  The child must banish the father.  Respect him, but kill him..  Courage in painting isn't facing the blank canvas, it's facing Manet, it's facing Velasquez.  All we can do is move beyond what was there, to what is here, and hope to get some intimation of what will be here."  

Rothko and Ken also talk about the role of the viewer in appreciating abstract art.  Ken mused that, "Representational pictures are unchanging; they don't require the active participation of the viewer.  Go to the Louvre in the middle of the night and the 'Mona Lisa' will still be smiling.  But do these paintings [Rothko's] still pulse when they're alone?"  Rothko's response:  "A picture lives by companionship.  It dies by the same token.  It's a risky act to send it out into the world..." He later says that, "Selling paintings is like sending a blind child into a room full of razor blades."

The title of the play comes from a scene when Rothko asks himself aloud what one of his ongoing paintings needs and Ken responds, "Red."  Outraged by what he sees as an unsolicited comment from his employee, he throws quite the fit.   The two men end up in a heated back and forth about what the color red represents.  "Red is heart beat.  Red is passion.  Red is wine.  Red roses.  Red lipstick.  Beets. Tulips.  Peppers."  "Arterial blood."  "Rust on the bike on the lawn."  "And apples...And tomatoes."  "Dresden firestorm at night.  The sun in Rousseau, the flag in Delacroix, the robe in El Greco."  "A rabbit's nose.  An albino's eyes.  A parakeet."  "Florentine marble.  Atomic flash.  Nick yourself shaving, blood in the Barbasol."  "The Ruby Slippers.  Technicolor.  That phone to the Kremlin on the President's desk."  "Russian flag, Nazi flag, Chinese flag."  "Persimmons.  Pomegranates.  Red Light District.  Red tape. Rouge."  "Lava.  Lobsters.  Scorpions."  "Stop sign.  Sports car.  A blush."  "Viscera.  Flame.  Dead Fauvists."  "Traffic lights.  Titian hair."  "Slash your wrists.  Blood in the sink."  "Santa Claus."  "Satan."  "So...red."   Brilliant.  

The play keeps coming back to the relationship between art and its viewers.  Notwithstanding Rothko's rather oversized ego, his greatest fear seems to have been that he would not find an audience with the capacity to look at his paintings in the way that he wanted them to be viewed and considered and treated as significant.  Rothko associated black with "Belshazzar's Feast," a painting by Rembrandt.  It's a painting representing the story of Belshazzar, the King of Babylon, who blasphemes at a feast of which he is the host.  A divine hand appears and writes on a dark wall the words, "You have been weighed in the balance and have been found wanting."   Ken tells him, "..in your heart, you no longer believe those people [who can "appropriately" appreciate his work] exist...So you lose faith...So you lose hope...So black swallows red."  You have been found wanting.

There's no doubt that "Red" isn't for everyone.  The gentleman sitting next to me asked me how I would rate it on a scale of 1-10.  "12" was my enthusiastic response.  He was a bit taken aback as he and his wife rated it a "6".  I also overheard some people on the way out saying that they thought it was boring.  In some ways, "Red" is as abstract as one of Rothko's paintings.  Most of the action goes on between your ears.  If you don't love art and have enough art history under your belt to summon up the works of the artists who are mentioned, I can see that it would be not be very interesting (much as David Auburn's play "Proof"--a story about math and madness--held no appeal for me).  I will be the first to admit that I am not sufficiently well versed to understand all of the references made in the play to philosophy and theology and the like.  But the challenge to understand the impact of these disciplines on the creation of a work of art is incredibly exciting .  If you have any interest at all in modern art, don't miss seeing this play while it's in our area.  There's no doubt that it will linger with you long after the curtain drops.

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