“What do you see?” The artist Mark Rothko hurls the question at the nervous young man who has just entered his New York City studio. Before an answer is given, Rothko shouts directions on where to stand and how to experience this piece of art. After he gets a response, he snaps at him, “But do you like it?”
Thus begins the extended verbal treatise on art by Rothko, announcing his opinions and grievances as if he doesn’t release them, he’ll explode.
Red, by John Logan, explores the period (1958-60) Rothko spent creating a series of murals commissioned for the ritzy Four Season restaurant in the recently completed Seagram Building on Park Avenue. As one of the central figures of the abstract expressionist movement in American art at that time, Rothko seemed an obvious choice. Yet for the artist, it confronts him with an aesthetic and moral dilemma that consumes him.
In the Redbird Theater Company’s production, Derrick Ivey plays Rothko as an artist possessed by his vision of how art should be viewed and compelled to loudly pontificate on it endlessly. He employs an assistant, Ken, played by Trevon Carr, to help prepare the canvases as well as fetch coffee, Chinese food, and anything else that is needed. Rothko never addresses Ken by name, using him as his soundboard. But this new employee slowly builds confidence and will eventually confront the revered artist.
The Durham Bottling Company offers a realistic backdrop for re-creating the artist’s workspace with its exposed rough brick walls and cement floor. A few large canvases lean against the walls suggesting the scale of Rothko’s works. The bar’s wide expanse provides plenty of room for Rothko’s restless movement as he masterfully gives voice to the debates that rage in his head.
Under Jeff Storer’s careful direction, Ivey absolutely consumes the space, delivering his tirades loudly, underscoring his anger and frustration with a world that doesn’t take the time to appreciate art on a deeper level. And he’s also feeling his age in the nip of the next crop of artists that are about to eclipse him: Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. His young assistant, a budding painter, also serves as that reminder, tentatively offering his observations to the older artist who really has no tolerance for other opinions.
Carr’s performance is understated; initially he listens, absorbs, even seems somewhat Zen as Rothko strides around lecturing and sometimes haranguing the young helper. But the emotion is building, slowly simmering, reflective of some of Carr’s best moments. What works in the interactions between the two performers is that both maintain the distance between them. Even when they do work together, wielding large brushes to prime a canvas, they move with a self-conscious awkwardness that has its own intensity.
In a brisk 90 minutes, the audience is treated to a highly philosophical discussion, much of which is taken from Rothko’s own writing, that reflects his creative struggles and his deep beliefs about the nature of art. In this world, red is not merely a color, but something more.
For more information visit Redbird Theatre Company.