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Artistic geniuses are often volatile and ornery. Their creativity makes them iconic; the fact they are so difficult adds a patina of interesting. And you certainly get both in GableStage's Red, the venerable one-act play that hurls symbolism, existentialism, and Friedrich Nietzsche all up in your face like an abstract expressionist dousing a canvas. Red is a semibiographical drama based on the life of Mark Rothko (Gregg Weiner), the Russian-born American painter whose expressionist works rival those of Jackson Pollock on the abstract-genius scale.
Carried by Weiner's grounded yet forceful performance, this play is pretty damn good. It's a tightly acted and reflective drama that paints a dense and compelling portrait of a complex, flawed, and opinionated man.
Rothko, it turns out, is serious to the point of being an opinionated, belligerent asshole about art and the seismic jolt its myth can cause society. But it works, because both the actor and the man are so friggin' brilliant.
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The story is based on real events. In 1958, the beverage company Joseph E. Seagram & Sons commissioned the artist to produce a set of murals for a new high-end restaurant named the Four Seasons. In the play, Rothko hires a young assistant, Ken (Ryan Didato), who unwittingly becomes the artist's sounding board for his dogmatic diatribes.
When the lights come up, we see Rothko sitting in his disheveled studio with a cigarette dangling between his fingers as he ardently gazes at one of his paintings. Ken arrives for his initial job interview, and Rothko blurts out, "What do you see?" He forces the kid to give his interpretation of the work, urging him to go beyond the obvious answers. Rothko is like a shitty middle school art teacher mixed with the old guy who yells at the neighborhood children to get off his damn lawn.
As a kid, Rothko came to the United States. His father, fearing the Czarist Army draft, moved the family to America from Russia in 1913. It was in New York where Rothko discovered his artistic calling and quickly became one of the world's greatest abstract expressionist painters. Wanting his art to reflect current political values as well as man's spiritual creativity, the artist was obsessed with color, form, and space. He dove into classical mythology and the writings of Nietzsche, the 19th-century German existentialist philosopher.
Through Weiner's performance, we clearly see Rothko as a man deeply influenced by Nietzscheism. Weiner, a five-time Carbonell winner who was last seen at GableStage in 2010 as Adam in 50 Words, fits the role of Rothko just right with his baritone inflection, nuanced emotional outbursts, and uncanny ability to cut Ken down to size with merely a look.
Weiner read up on Nietzsche before playing Rothko. But according to the actor, the painter one-upped the philosopher when it came to being abstruse. "You think Nietzsche can be inaccessible," he told me after the show. "I read some of Rothko's stuff and didn't know what the fuck he was talking about half the time." Rothko's intelligence is enigmatic, even in his writing, Weiner says.
At its core, Red is a series of snapshots of the artist's mind — visceral moments during which he both admonishes Ken while feigning indifference and bitches about everything that's wrong with world culture. "I'm here to make you think," the fickle artist cries out to Ken while the two spar over the meaning of texture in one of his paintings, "not paint pretty pictures!"
Indeed, Rothko constantly wrestles with the value and objectivity of truth. He questions everything, from his own work to Ken's mindset to his very real awareness that his art will hang at a restaurant for snooty, rich assholes ("I'm going to paint paintings that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room!").
Red is engrossing, but it's not without flaws. Playwright John Logan has some impressive screenplays on his resumé (The Aviator, Gladiator, The Last Samurai), and his story-telling prowess is on full display here. But Red is also drenched in heavy-handed symbolism. The color red is all over the damn place. It bookends the narrative, it's the color of Rothko's big-ass painting — which hangs center stage for all to see during the full 90 minutes — and it is a not-so-subtle presence in everything from Ken's dark past to Rothko's eventual date with destiny. Logan wants us to understand that red is the color of blood and passion. We get it, dude. Dial it down a notch.
The play could also do without Ken's backstory. The character isn't based on any real person, and his "unsettling" past seems to be shoehorned in to give the character some depth while once again dousing us with that pesky symbolism.
Held together by an absorbing classical soundtrack, set designer Lyle Baskin's stripped-down lighting, and the talent of the two actors who adeptly deliver Logan's prose, the play is solidly directed by the always-awesome Joseph Adler.
Red first opened in London to stellar reviews in 2009 and eventually made its way to Broadway, with veteran character actor Alfred Molina in the role of Rothko. GableStage's take is a fantastic one, thanks mainly to Weiner's performance, in which he reveals a narcissistic, fading giant in a postmodern world. "The actor in me wishes there was audio or film on the man," Weiner says. "But the benefit is there is nothing to imitate or act off of other than his writings, which helped me a lot."
And then, in true Rothko-like fashion, the amiable Weiner says, "It's a work in progress."