Call me a philistine, but I don’t get, and therefore don’t much like, abstract expressionism. That movement, which dominated post-war American art, was fueled by the emotional intensity of German expressionism while reducing the iconoclastic abstractions of Picasso, Matisse, Miró et al. to savage swaths of color. Mark Rothko was perhaps the foremost exponent of the movement’s “color field painting” cohort—his brash blocks of color contrasting with the frenzied “action painting ” of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
Red, John Logan’s Tony-winning play about Rothko, is currently at Hartford’s TheaterWorks, in a smart, muscular production by Tazewell Thompson. We find the artist in his Bowery studio in the late 1950s, working on a 40-canvas commission for the upscale Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. (Donald Eastman’s dirty white-brick, canvas-cluttered setting convincingly represents the paint-spattered domain of a working artist.) The drama unfolds over two years as Rothko completes the series. He’s accompanied by a young assistant, Ken, and by his own stream-of-ego pronouncements on the theory, practice and importance of art.
No, make that Art. For Rothko—and many of the character’s lines are quotes or paraphrases from the artist himself—is a fountain of vociferous opinion on the depth of meaning contained in great painting, especially his own. He’s an arrogant, obsessive, chain-smoking bully, and Jonathan Epstein’s pyrotechnic performance gives us all of that, and more. Epstein also captures the artist’s passionate commitment to his vision, his workmanlike professionalism (there’s a nice moment of matter-of-fact paint preparation, as he breaks eggs to stir into the tempera pigment), his anxious resentment of the up-and-coming pop art vulgarians like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, and his own troubled psyche which sees “tragedy in every brush stroke.”
Ken, an aspiring artist himself, at first meekly endures the master’s tirades and gratuitous insults, but gradually develops a spine and a voice of his own. Thomas Leverton handles the transition adroitly, actually seeming to grow in physical stature over the play’s 90-minute arc. Ken also has a tragic back-story, a memory that, like Rothko’s murals, is dominated by the color red.
Full-size reproductions of the seven-foot paintings fill the stage. In the play’s most exhilarating passage, the two artists apply ground color to a new canvas in an explosion of blood-red paint. The anti-colors black and white also play metaphorical roles. In the Four Seasons paintings, black borders enclose the slabs of dark red. At one point Rothko—who later committed suicide—admits his fear that “one day the black will swallow the red.”
Rothko’s art, as he explains to Ken, depends on the viewer’s active engagement. He needs you not just to look, but to “work with it … lean into it … engage with it” in order to comprehend the raw emotion brushed into the shapes and colors. I may not be a fan of abstract expressionism, but from the first moment of TheaterWorks’ Red, when Epstein’s Rothko comes forward to examine an unseen painting on the imaginary “fourth wall” of the stage—and lets his critical scrutiny fall on the audience as well—I was fully engaged in this ferocious journey through an inspired, exasperating artist’s life, work and soul.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.