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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Sparkling Dialogue and a Commanding Performance
Produce a Vibrant Red

Also see Bob's review of Veronica's Room

Bob Ari and Randy Harrison
It is a wonder to behold the plethora of ideas and the depth and complexity of characterization that playwright John Logan has managed to encompass in Red, a ninety minute, one act, two character play depicting famed abstract impressionist American painter, Mark Rothko, then in his mid 50s, working in his Bowery studio, as he interacts with aspiring young artist, Ken from Iowa, his new assistant, over a period of more than a year (1958-1959).

From the beginning, Rothko sternly admonishes his new assistant that his role is to stretch canvasses, open the paints and to run errands such as going out for coffee, adding, "I'm your employer. I am not your rabbi, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend and I am not your teacher." The time that the unlettered and seemingly shallow Ken spends in close contact with Rothko does result in providing the benefits which such personages may bestow. Just how consciously and willingly, grudgingly and unintentionally, Rothko does provide mentoring for Ken is for the viewer to decide. For me, the answer is very nuanced. Rothko, a fearsome and fearful figure, only rarely and fleetingly displays any largesse of spirit toward Ken. Yet Logan, director Anders Cato, and actor Bob Ari have given us a multi-dimensional, passionate Rothko whose ambiguities are not a theatrical device, but spring from the artist's background and experience. The depth and subtlety of their work allows viewers to bring their own experience and understanding of human nature to interpret the heart of Logan's Rothko.

It appears safe to assume that most of the ideas expressed by the stage Rothko come directly from or paraphrase Rothko's actual writings and observations. Such a line spoken by Rothko early in the play gives us an insight crucial to appreciating Logan's method: "Art requires a compassionate, sympathetic eye. It is the viewer who gives it its value." Thus, in enabling the viewer to individually interpret the stage Rothko, Logan has honored Rothko and shown respect for the viewer.

There is an unlikely bit of dialogue spoken by Rothko in Red. It is Rothko's description of himself to Ken as being as being Jew, born Marcus Rothkowitz. Rothko, whether out of fear or loathing, distanced himself from being identified as Jewish. So the only reason for him to be telling this to Ken is provide information for the audience.

While Red seems meant in substantial measure to depict the mentoring of Ken, and his growth and maturation under the tutelage of a difficult master artist, it actually plays as being almost totally about Rothko. How much can we or Rothko care about this unlettered void from Iowa who does not have any familiarity with Rothko's beloved Nietzsche? If anything, Rothko appears to behave as a Nietzsche master-morality personage for whom it is appropriate to dominate the slave-morality hampered Ken. Is Ken stoking a suppressed slave-mentality in the troubled Rothko when he admonishes Rothko for designing and selling murals for display in the new Philip Johnson designed Seagram Building Four Seasons super posh restaurant? Why am I on a sidetrack? Well, Red is a play which stimulates the thought process.

In any event, when Ken finally lashes out at Rothko, whether or not this marks maturation on his part, or simply anger and petulance (certainly, there is populist, petty class envy afoot) will certainly vary with the eye of the beholder. Rothko responds to Ken's blistering critique of him with his first somewhat kind words for the lad: "This is the first time you existed." And his final words would suggest that he feels that he has prepared Ken to be part of his successor generation. Despite this, there was nothing that I saw or heard that convinced me that Ken had matured either as a person or an artist.

Insofar as it goes, the relationship between Rothko and Ken embodies a major theme at the heart of Red. It is that each new generation must reject the art of the previous generation ("the child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him") in order to create its own art. Anger and distemper are the prime emotions in their intergenerational, cold and emotionally distant father-son relationship. Yet, Red is a warmly passionate play. That passion is found in Rothko's all consuming love of Art, particularly his own. Vain and frightened, and quite full of himself, a multiplicity of ideas about art and what makes art pour forth from Rothko. These ideas are so vibrantly and intelligently expressed that any person who loves words and language will delight in their sound and in trying to tease out the wheat from the chaff. As a skeptic when it comes to the intellectualization of what is essentially esthetic, as brilliant and erudite as Rothko is, I found some of his observations to be perilously close to being clever and beguiling nonsense. I am content that writer, director and actor sure handedly had me just where I was supposed to be.

Bob Ari totally embodies all that one would imagine Mark Rothko to be. Ari seems to spring to life from photographs that we see of Rothko, and has the presence of the brilliant and intolerant intellectual artist who came to America as a young child with his Jewish family to escape the anti-Semitism of Czarist Russia and then spent his life hopelessly trying to escape his ethnic identity whether out of fear or shame. Only a portion of this background is revealed in the play, but when one is aware of it, it provides considerable insight into the pain and sympathy that Ari gives to his portrayal of a cruel and forbidding egotist.

Randy Harrison is natural and believable as a callow lad floundering about, trying to figure out how to stay afloat and maintain his enviable position so close to a vaunted artist. As the relationship is portrayed, Harrison is forced to remain a cipher until the climactic scenes.

Anders Cato has directed a spry, fast-paced production which never sacrifices clarity for pace, nor pace for clarity. There is a pleasing giddiness in the brilliant writing which is fully captured in its performance. The theatrically thrilling sequence in which Rothko and Ken together hang, stretch and then, almost maniacally, prime the canvas by slathering it with broad frenzied brushstrokes of maroon painting is masterfully choreographed and performed. Here the passion of John Logan's words are transposed into physical passion.

Lee Savage's set of Rothko's studio and the lighting design of Dan Kotlowitz provide an environment which keeps us sharply focused on the actors and the explosive colors, squares and boxes of the "likenesses" of the Rothko Seagram Murals.

Rothko used the color red which he saw as expressing passion. Passion to him was the opposite of death (black). Fittingly, Anders Cato's production of John Logan's Red brings Mark Rothko passionately back to life.

Red continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday-Saturday (Except 2/09) 8 PM; Sunday (except 2/26) 7 PM/ Matinees Thursday, Saturday & Sunday (Except 2/16) 2 PM) thru February 26, 2012, at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717; Online:

Red by John Logan; directed by Anders Cato
Mark Rothko........................Bob Ari
Ken.........................Randy Harrison

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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