Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of Elephant Room
The play, which received the Best Play Tony Award in 2010, is set in 1958-59, after Rothko has accepted a commission to create murals for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building. With the arrival of a new assistant, Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko takes on the role of teacher and mentor, justifying his artistic choices and entering into a wide-ranging philosophical dialogue.
Robert Falls' taut direction and Logan's literate script keep the audience fascinated for the play's 100-minute length (no intermission), but Gero's galvanizing portrayal is its core. Just as Rothko built his paintings bit by bit and level by level, integrating tension among the colors that becomes more obvious the longer a viewer examines them, so does Gero bring out the contradictions of the painter.
Rothko was born to a Jewish family in Russia, came to America at age 10, and settled in New York City in the 1920s. Much of Red is an animated history lesson about the generations of 20th-century painting: Abstract Expressionismexemplified by the twin poles of Rothko's reserve and Jackson Pollock's abandonsuperseded the earlier Cubist and Dada movements and, in term, was succeeded by the Pop Art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Rothko's love of form and formality comes through in the classical music recordings he plays in his studio; Ken prefers the imaginative jazz flights of John Coltrane.
Although Eddie Redmayne won a Tony for his performance as Ken, Andrews's portrayal makes him more of a cipher and sounding board, less a specific person. In Rothko's studio, everything is about Rothko, and Ken's introduction of new ideas will always be less compelling than the master's dictates.
Todd Rosenthal's scenic design uses the height and depth of the Kreeger stage to convey the vast size of Rothko's studioa "monumental space," the painter says, where he can create a series of works on an epic scale. The scenes where Rothko and his assistant confront an enormous canvas and prepare it for painting are visually the most memorable: the two men literally wrestle the canvas into position, place it on hooks, use ropes and pulleys to bring it into position, then prime the canvas with great sweeps of dark paint.