Ashland Contemporary Theatre’s RED: Intense Musings on Art, Philosophy, Culture and Life
– by Lee Greene
Ashland Contemporary Theatre is currently staging the Tony Award winning two-man drama, Red by Josh Logan. The play is a fictional exploration of a real life incident in the life of American abstract impressionist painter, Mark Rothko. Rothko, a Russian émigré to America at the age of ten, was a famously intense, moody, passionate, and temperamental intellectual. Rothko had spent much of his adult life secluding himself with his art and avoiding unnecessary social interactions. As an adult, he fought serious episodes of depression, ultimately culminating in a gruesome blood-covered suicide at age 66 in 1970, by slashing his arms with a razor blade, as well as overdosing on anti-depressants.
The incident which is the focus of the musings in the play revolves around the commission Rothko received in 1958 from the Seagram family, to produce murals for the new luxury restaurant, the Four Seasons, in their new Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson designed building on Park Avenue in New York City. Rothko received $35,000 “to design a coordinated series of paintings”, producing “an artwork space concept for a large, specific interior. Over the following three months, Rothko completed forty paintings, three full series in dark red and brown. He altered his horizontal format to vertical to complement the restaurant’s vertical features: columns, walls, doors and windows.” [Wikipedia, Mark Rothko, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Rothko] But after touring Europe in 1959, including visits to Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence and the murals in the Pompeiian Villa of the Mysteries, pursuing inspiration for his Four Seasons murals, he returned to New York and visited the near completed restaurant.
“Upset with the restaurant’s dining atmosphere, which he considered pretentious and inappropriate for the display of his works, Rothko refused to continue the project and returned his cash advance to the Seagrams and Sons Company. Seagram had intended to honor Rothko’s emergence to prominence through his selection, and his breach of contract and public expression of outrage were unexpected. . . . Given that Rothko had known in advance about the luxury decor of the restaurant and the social class of its future patrons, the motives for his abrupt repudiation remain mysterious. A temperamental personality, Rothko never fully explained his conflicted emotions over the incident.” [Id.] And then, the suicide insured that the mystery would never be solved.
The play employs a clever device for exploring this mystery. Playwright Logan has invented a fictional assistant to the painter, Ken, with whom the painter conducts a dialogue about his work and the Four Seasons project throughout the course of the period from the acceptance of the commission to the return of the Seagram funds. In effect, the assistant, Ken, serves as a competing facet of artist Rothko’s psyche, thus presenting the artist’s internal battle from the time of his acceptance of the commission until his rejection of the project and return of the commission. As noted at the beginning of this discussion, Rothko was an intense, moody, passionate, and temperamental intellectual. This play is “all talk and no action.” [Variety, Review: ‘Red’, http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117942521.html?categoryId=33&cs=1] It is an intellectual’s tour de force contemplation on art, philosophy, culture and life, incorporating many public comments and quotes actually provided by the artist during his life, woven into an interesting tapestry delivered by the two man ensemble representing the warring facets of the artist’s psyche. If this kind of intellectual contemplation is your cup of tea, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better, more interesting vehicle presenting it; but if you’re looking for action, broad comedy, romance, or tuneful songs, this play is not for you. During the early stages of the play, while Rothko is content to be undertaking the project and working on the murals, the artist is rather bellicose in expressing his views and attitudes, and practically abusive towards his assistant, who remains largely quiet while tolerating the artist’s rampaging ego and grandiose conception of his art and its place in the world. But in the later stages of the play, the assistant finds his voice, and gives as good as he gets, in combating the artist’s notions about art, culture, commerce, and the Four Season’s project.
The play was originally produced in London in December 2009, with Alfred Molina in the role of Mark Rothko and Eddie Redmayne making his stage debut as the assistant, Ken. The play received mixed reviews in London, but positive ones for Molina’s performance. [Wikipedia, Red (play), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_(play)] Redmayne won a supporting actor Olivier Award, and Evening Standard and Critics Circle Awards for outstanding newcomer for the London production. [Variety, Review: ‘Red’, http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117942521.html?categoryId=33&cs=1] The production moved to Broadway in March 2010, where it was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning six: Best Play, Best Featured Actor in a Play for Eddie Redmayne, Best Direction, Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting Design, and Best Sound Design. In addition, Alfred Molina was nominated for Best Actor. Molina was widely applauded for a bravura performance. Writing for the New York Times, critic Ben Brantley wrote: “In his strongest Broadway performance to date, the dauntless Mr. Molina embraces the artist’s egotism unconditionally, and he makes us feel the necessity of an overweening, humorless vanity and — to use a word that for Rothko denotes a cardinal virtue — seriousness.” [New York Times, Primary Colors and Abstract Appetites, http://theater.nytimes.com/2010/04/02/theater/reviews/02red.html?ref=theater] The Tony Award winning set for the Broadway production featured Rothko’s own artwork “which is exquisitely presented in facsimile by the designers” [Id.] and “gives Rothko a space big enough to contain both his rampaging ego and his monumental aesthetic vision.” [Variety, Review: ‘Red’, http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117942521.html?categoryId=33&cs=1]
So it was with some degree of doubt and trepidation that I attended the current Ashland Contemporary Theatre production, staged in a winery space (Grizzly Peak Winery) with longtime eminence grise Ashland-based actor, Peter Alzado, in the Mark Rothko role, and recent SOU Theater Arts graduate, Reece Bredl as the assistant Ken. It is with considerable pleasure that I can report that those doubts and fears were wholly misplaced. The Ashland Contemporary Theatre presentation of this intense, dense, cerebral drama is brilliantly done by co-directors Jeannine Grizzard and Peter Alzado. The use of the winery facility as the stage and the space for Rothko’s studio was inspired and perfect. It looked exactly like Rothko’s studio is supposed to look. “Bare to the bricks and dark as a tomb (‘Nature doesn’t work for me,’ Rothko says about his aversions to painting under natural light), the studio is more like a warehouse, housing stacks of the gigantic color saturated canvases that define his distinctive style.” [Id.]
And the performances by Messrs. Alzado and Bredl were equal to the fantastically good set and to the well written material of the play. Mr. Alzado rendered an intense, energized, riveting and thoroughly believable portrayal of the intense, temperamental artist. Mr. Bredl distinguished himself superbly as the foil to artist Rothko’s outsize ego and overblown conceptions of art, philosophy, and culture. Too bad we don’t have our own local award for best newcomer – I’d happily nominate Mr. Bredl if we did.
If you enjoy this sort of high brow drama – dense word play and extensive reference to and discussion of philosophical and cultural signposts (e.g., Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, and Shakespeare), you will love this production of Red. Performances of Ashland Contemporary Theatre’s Red will continue on Saturday, March 26 at 2 pm and 8pm, and Sunday, March 27 at 2 pm, at the Ashland Community Center, at 59 Winburn Way, Ashland. Tickets can be purchased at Paddington Station in Ashland, Grocery Outlet in Medford, or online at http://bit.ly/21mRBIZ.