GableStage's Red Is Doused in Symbolism, Nietzsche, and Genius

Red, which opened last night at the GableStage, is a venerable one-act play that hurls symbolism, existentialism, and Fredrick Nietzsche all up in your face like an abstract expressionist dousing flecks of paint on a canvas. Loosely based on the life of Mark Rothko, the brilliant Russian-born American painter whose expressionist paintings rival those of Jackson Pollock on the abstract genius scale, Red turns out to be a pretty damn good play. It's a tightly acted and reflective drama that paints a dense and compelling portrait of a complex, flawed, brilliant, and opinionated man.

Rothko, it turns out, is pretty damn serious about art appreciation, to the point of being an opinionated belligerent asshole. But it works, because the man is so fucking brilliant.

In 1958, the Seagram Building commissioned Rothko (Gregg Weiner) to produce a set of murals for their new high-end restaurant named the Four Seasons. Rothko takes on an assistant, Ken (Ryan Didato), who becomes the artist's protégé as much as a sounding board for his dogmatic diatribes.

When the lights go 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. When Ken arrives for his initial job interview, Rothko blurts out, "What do you see?" and forces the kid to give his interpretation of the painting, urging him to go beyond the obvious answers. Rothko is your shitty middle school art teacher mixed with the old guy who yells "Get off my damn lawn!" at the neighborhood kids, only if your shitty middle school art teacher and the get off my lawn guy were super geniuses. 

Rothko's mind is the very picture of the kinetic genius. He's constantly wrestling with the value and objectivity of truth with everything from his own work, to Ken's mindset, to his very real awareness that his art is going to be hanging 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!").

It's through Wiener's performance that we clearly see Rothko as a man deeply influenced by Nietzscheism. Weiner himself read up on the abstruse 19th century German philosopher to research his role for Rothko. But, according to the actor, Nietzsche is nothing compared to Rothko's own writings on art. "You think Nietzsche can be inaccessible," he told us afterward. "I read some of Rothko's stuff and didn't know what the fuck he was talking about half the time."

Rothko's genius is unattainable. And, at its core, Red is a series of snapshots of his mind -- visceral moments where the artist both admonishes Ken while simultaneously bitching about everything that's wrong with the postmodern world. "I'm here to make you think," the fickle artist exclaims at one point. "Not paint pretty pictures!"

Red is an engrossing drama, but not without its flaws. Playwright John Logan has some impressive screenplays on his resume (The Aviator, Gladiator, The Last Samurai), and his story-telling kick assery is on full display here. But Red is also flagrantly drenched in 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 is a not-so-subtle presence in everything from Ken's dark past to Rothko's eventual date with destiny. Mr. Logan clearly wanted 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 back-story. The character isn't based on any real person, and his "unsettling" past seems to be shoehorned into the story to give the character some depth while once again dousing us with that pesky symbolism.

Carried by a grounded yet forcefully inflective performance from Weiner, and solidly directed by the always-awesome Joseph Adler, Red turns out to be a fantastic character study of one of the greatest abstract expressionist painters who ever lived. Even ole cantankerous Rothko would have to agree with that.

Look for our extended review in this week's issue.

Red runs through December 4 at GableStage at the Biltmore (1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables) With performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm & 7 pm. Tickets start at $42.50 ($15 for students). Call 305- 445-1119 or visit

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Chris Joseph