(Randy Harrison as Ken and Bob Ari as Mark Rothko)
You may, at some point in your life, have wondered what it must feel like to be inside the mind of a great painter. Well, you should probably be careful what you wish for. Sometimes, it can be a dark and forbidding place.
In the completely engrossing Red by John Logan, now at the Cleveland Play House, we are ushered into the fevered cranium of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. And it is a 100-minute journey that flies by as two actors, portraying an older Rothko and his young assistant, duke it out over painting and the ethical and moral issues that attend contemporary art.
If that sounds dry and stuffy, nothing could be further from the truth. Rothko starts out the play as a booze-chugging, cigarette-smoking snark fest, and remains that way to the end. But while his go-fer Ken is initially cowed by the legendary artist, the young man grows into his own strong and acidic opinions.
That’s when the sparks really fly in this Tony Award-winning play, as Ken challenges Rothko about his famous commission of a mural for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. Rothko burns with a need to challenge bourgeois comfort, wanting to “stop your heart” with his paintings.
But he’s also drawn to the big money his work fetches, and Ken eventually calls him on it. Dubbing Rothko a “romantic,” he chides Rothko for placing his supposedly tragic pieces, many the color of dried blood, into a venue of cosseted consumption. This leads to the denouement that neatly echoes the real Rothko’s final days.
Under the firm and intelligent direction of Anders Cato, the actors are simply splendid. As Ken, Randy Harrison deftly traces the young man’s path from trembling underling to confident painter-to-be. And Rothko feels fully fleshed out by Bob Ari, who throws away Logan’s caustic lines with perfectly modulated skill.
When Ari’s Rothko talks about how “alive” his canvases are compared to representational painting, focusing on the intersection of colors, you feel transported to a different and fascinating world. And when he explains his shadowy studio by saying “Nature doesn’t work for me, the light’s no good,” you almost want to go home and board up your windows.
Tormented by the blackness of death, the one color he fears, Rothko’s Four Seasons paintings feature a muted palette of maroons and siennas. This is represented by the one facsimile painting that dominates the stage from the beginning.
But what really overwhelms the stage throughout this remarkable production is the mind of Rothko. As he once said, “Artists desperately seek pockets of silence where we can root and grow.” Red offers those pockets, along with blazing flurries of conversation, reflection and argument that will keep your head spinning long after the curtain call.
Through April 8 at the Cleveland Play House, PlayhouseSquare. Call 216-241-6000.