The Cleveland Play House continues its exciting season with “Red,” which is based on real-life incidents in the life of artist Mark Rothko. Whether you like or loathe abstract expressionism, you’ll find a lot to talk about with this script and production. Abstract expressionism was the movement of art expressing emotion – not representational images as in realistic painting, nor reality viewed differently, as in cubism. A key figure in this movement was Mark Rothko.
The play is set in his studio as a young assistant is hired. From the outset, Rothko’s self-absorption is exceeded only by his self-loathing. Rothko is played by Bob Ari, who at first seems to give a glossy, superficial look at the figure. Soon, however, he reveals a man who not only knows history and philosophy, but also gives the characteristics of organic, living creatures to his paintings. Assistant Ken – we never learn his last name – is relegated to stretching canvases, mixing color and buying cigarettes and Chinese carryout for his employer.
Presented without intermission, “Red” is primarily a verbal play. The words are exciting and intriguing. This is not to say that the play is without action. In one scene, Rothko and Ken prime a canvas with red paint. Working in tandem while the radio plays schizophrenic classical violin music, the scene is almost sexual in nature as they attack the large canvas. Indeed, Rothko has a cigarette after the event.
In 1958, Rothko was commissioned by architect Philip Johnson to make a series of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram’s building in New York. In “Red,” he explains how the diners will be forced to confront and respond to the paintings. He also talks about how they “will have each other, for comfort.” In other words, the paintings will have a “good home.” In one of the show’s best-written scenes, Rothko describes his dining experience at The Four Seasons a few weeks after it opened. Essentially a restaurant for snobs, The Four Seasons turned out not to be the home of his murals, because Rothko pulled the works and returned the money that was his commission for the project.
“Red” playwright John Logan is better known as a screenwriter – “Sweeney Todd,” “Hugo,” “Gladiator” – but his flair for vibrant dialogue shines in this production. Director Anders Cato uses the large Play House stage at the Allen Theatre well. A huge Rothko-inspired canvas is the first thing the audience sees.
Don’t be put off by the lofty-seeming subject matter of “Red.” It is about human beings more than art, and the themes raised in the play will incite dialogue among those who see it. You will probably learn something about yourself, as well as the artist, as you see, ponder, digest and discuss “Red.” The production runs through April 8.