Less frightening but just as intellectually stimulating as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is John Logan's Red, presently on the boards at Shamblin Theatre in a production co-sponsored by Blackbird Theater and Lipscomb University.
Playwright Logan doesn't shy away from challenging material — some of his previous stage and film successes have tackled subjects like Leopold and Loeb (Never the Sinner), the Lindbergh baby kidnapping (Hauptmann) and Howard Hughes (The Aviator). Logan's credits include other major undertakings such as Gladiator and The Last Samurai and Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd.
Here Logan takes on Mark Rothko, a Russian-American painter identified with the abstract expressionism movement but who firmly resisted such categorization. In Logan's play, it's 1958, and Rothko is creating a series of murals commissioned for New York's Four Seasons restaurant. Completing the work will earn him $35,000, and Rothko becomes increasingly frenzied as he considers the meaning of his art and its greater impact on the viewing public.
Enter a young assistant, a painter named Ken, who endures Rothko's egoism and oppressive self-centeredness while helping him conceive and execute his canvases, and eventually challenges the master's decision to exhibit his work in a tony restaurant catering to the well-to-do. (What happened to the Rothko pieces is now a matter of public record — the artist refused to hang them at the Four Seasons, and they were subsequently dispersed to museums in London, Washington and Sakura, Japan.)
Logan's script leads us — sometimes ponderously, sometimes tantalizingly — through Rothko's mind as he rails against the critics and especially the younger artists of the Warhol ilk mucking up the path of artistic commitment that he has blazed.
Lipscomb theater department chairman Mike Fernandez directs the two-man cast, handing Ronnie Meek the daunting task of portraying Rothko and finding "tragedy in every brushstroke." Meek affects Rothko's Russian accent, stomps about the stage pontificating irascibly, spouts windy aphorisms, drinks and smokes devotedly, and opines on Nietzsche, Pollock, Picasso and more. Later, as he pushes through his grand delusion, he verbally abuses his protégé, played with vigor and sensitivity by Justin Boccitto. Boccitto's character, it turns out, has a personal story that eclipses Rothko's for pained inspiration.
Red may not win Rothko any fans, but should trigger some interesting conversation about that period of art and the artist's overall output. Cynics who derided Rothko's later "multiforms" might want to keep in mind that in May of this year, his 1961 painting "Orange, Red, Yellow" brought $86.9 million at auction.
Strangely enough, less than two weeks ago, one of the paintings in the Four Seasons series was defaced at the Tate Modern gallery in London by a Russian man who said, "I'm not a vandal," then compared himself with surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp. Clearly Rothko still matters, and Red credibly draws back the curtain on the work and philosophy of a major talent.
Andy Bleiler is the production's tech director and scenic designer, and his intimate studio setting, including Rothko canvases in progress, reeks of authenticity.