When courting his second wife-to-be, Mark Rothko gave her a copy of The Trial. In Franz Kafka’s uncompleted novel, an unnamed accuser arrests Josef K for an unnamed crime. According to his biographer, James E.B. Breslin, Rothko was telling his fiancé, “Whatever romantic ideas you have about my Russianness, or my Jewishness, or the life of an artist, this novel will tell you what my life has really been like.”
A living, often self-imposed, hell. A hypochondriac, with Masters Degrees in scotch whiskey, chain-smoked cigarettes, and control issues, Rothko regarded the world with grave distrust. He held doctors, art historians, and critics in disfavor, and spared no vitriol for popular artists and nondiscerning spectators.
John Logan’s Red begins with a rant. It’s 1958 and young Ken’s first day on the job as Rothko’s assistant. “Everyone likes everything nowadays,” Rothko blurts. “Everything becomes everything else, and it’s all nice and pretty and likeable.... Where’s the discernment?... A generation that does not aspire to seriousness, to meaning, is unworthy to walk in the shadow of those who have gone before.”
What a banner-waver! It’s almost as if Mark Rothko came through time to exhort today’s artists and audiences to grow up.
It’s also the playwright instructing his audience how to appreciate Red.
Rothko needed an assistant. He contracted a series of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in the soon-to-be-completed Seagram’s Building on Park Avenue. He’s getting $35,000, which, as Ken says, makes it “the flashiest commission since the Sistine Chapel.” Rothko envisions his ideal: a “temple” of contemplation to give viewers enough time to appreciate what seem, at first, blurry murals. If they do, their initial myopia will disappear. They will sense movement — even pulses, tensions and releases — in the pigment.
“Sure,” says Ken, when he finally has the courage, “but it’s a restaurant.”
Born in Dvinsk, a Russian-Jewish village similar to Anatevka in Fiddler, Rothko’s art went outside the box, literally: usually three bars of color — “stacked rectangles” — as if seen through gauze. They appear to morph: some withdraw, others leap forward. “I do not work with space,” he said. “There is a form without the box and possibly a more convincing kind of form.”
Red begins on the downside of this discovery. Where Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning, and the Abstract Expressionists “destroyed” Cubism, now Pop Art upstarts — Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol — are “trying to kill me!”
Is Rothko over the hill? Has he lost his vision? Is the Four Seasons contract a sell-out? Is anyone alert enough to appreciate his art?
At one point he and Ken free-associate about the color red: passion, apples, roses, lipstick, the President’s emergency phone, and others. Rothko also admits red is a “tiny bit of hope...that makes the rest endurable.”
One thing red isn’t, Rothko insists, is black. We “long for the raw truth of emotion but can only endure it with the cool lie of reason.” The ideal, he says, is a symbiotic balance between the two. The tragedy? “We can never achieve it.” His only fear: “The day the black will swallow the red.”
As they play word-association, many of Rothko’s choices — “arterial blood,” “slash your wrists,” “blood in the sink” — foreshadow his suicide in 1970.
In director Michael Arabian’s capable hands, the San Diego Rep production fluctuates from order to chaos, outward to inward, black to red and back.
There are times in John Vickery’s otherwise excellent performance where he lets his sonorous voice jog a few laps and glide over harsh emotions — when Rothko’s was more tobacco-cracked and agitated. But Vickery offers a rare glimpse inside the mind of an aging artist wondering just how major — or even if — he will be. Up there with Rembrandt? Or, like the words written on the wall in Daniel, “found wanting”?
Rothko is extremes (a friend said he “had tremendous doubts and tremendous ego”). Vickery takes each to where it should be. At the same time, in the two years Rothko works on the murals, Vickery ages him about ten.
As Ken, Jason Maddy is much more than a useful foil. Maddy gives him an Ugly Duckling quality; as Ken becomes more assertive, his vision expands; he just might become an artist — thanks to Rothko’s master class.
On Giulio Perrone’s set, blank canvases hover above rows of cans, brushes, and flecks of pigment. Add Brian Gale’s lighting — and the ongoing subtext about seeing deeply — and the stage picture seems to move. Squares and rectangles in reddish hues and blurred borders spread across the floor. Even the spilled paint bears a resemblance, albeit briefly, to a Rothko. Throughout, vital reds give way to somber shadows and, in the end, a final fade to black.
Directed by Michael Arabian; cast: John Vickery, Jason Maddy; scenic design, Giulio Perrone; costumes, Anastasia Pautova; lighting, Brian Gale; sound, Kevin Anthenill
Playing through April 27; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.