The 2011-12 season at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis has opened with a vigorous production of John Logan's Tony-winning dramatic profile of abstract-expressionist artist Mark Rothko. Featuring intense performances from Brian Dykstra as Rothko, and Matthew Carlson as his sometimes hapless, sometimes acerbic assistant Ken, under the meticulous direction of Steve Woolf, the play adumbrates two crucial years in the 1950s during which Rothko's artistic identity and his fortune hang in the balance.
The character and behavior of the assistant are, apparently, fictional, but the portrait of Rothko himself is largely drawn from life. His mannerisms, his clothes, and especially his work habits are faithfully rendered. His best lines are taken more or less verbatim from the sometimes pretentious and always bombastic public pronouncements with which the real Rothko evidently sought to create a comfortable distance between himself and the public. The man was self-consciously intellectual, widely if not deeply read in works about the creative process, and highly aware of the monetary value of making up a sophisticated aesthetic justification for his work. The fact that his paintings now sell for tens of millions of dollars is ample testimony to his genius; whether that genius is properly located in his paintings themselves or in his self-promotion is a matter about which reasonable people might disagree.
But, within the context of the play, Rothko's personality and the convoluted, almost Beckett-like flow of his ideas are beside the point. To take this play at anything other than face value, to read or to experience it as criticism or biography, an exploration and evaluation of Rothko, or of Rothko's paintings, or of Rothko's philosophy, is to commit the same, tiresome error committed by all who want art to be "about" more than the experience of confronting it. What matters in the theater is exactly the skill with which Logan extracts an avatar from the real Rothko, imagines a dramatic foil, sets a context, and puts both men and words into motion.
In scene after scene, the interplay between dark and light, between the character Rothko's deepening delusion and insecurity and Ken's ingenuous desire to read genius into the master and all that he touches, creates astonishing dramatic intensity. Perhaps the most remarkable of a bounty of remarkable scenes comes midway through the play's single act, when the two men apply carefully-mixed primer to a wall-sized stretched canvas. This simple enough act, with both characters completely absorbed in the work, quickly becomes a dance, intensifies into something bordering on frenzy, and climaxes in exhausted stillness, with Rothko lighting what is obviously intended to mock a post-coital cigarette. Watching it, I found myself holding my breath. Surely this degree of absorption is what Logan wants, as Rothko claims he wants those who see his work to be enveloped in it.
Michael Ganio has created a magnificent set for this production, crowded and complex yet never claustrophobic. Phil Monat lights it with great sensitivity for the demands of the script. As always, Dorothy Marshall Englis contributes masterful costumes. Steve Woolf, who makes no bones about his admiration for Rothko's work, keeps the intensity turned up but firmly under control.
In short, John Logan's play about Mark Rothko is a marvelous piece of theater, beautifully realized in this Repertory Theater of St. Louis production, and certain to appeal even to those who are less enthusiastic about Rothko's paintings. It will run through October 2; when the word gets out, tickets are likely to become scarce.
For ticket information call 314-968-4925, or visit www.repstl.org.