Saturday, August 11, 2012


Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko
John Logan’s RED invigorates the imagination and resurrects beautifully the spirit of Mark Rothko currently at the Mark Taper Forum. 

Alfred Molina  as the painter not only takes the stage, but draws the audience in with exaltations of the creative process and ego that stir the passions. At once the image of the painter and the actor meld in the Passion/ Work of Molina and Jonathan Groff as Ken, his assistant newly hired who shows up dressed to impress but does not.  Rothko immediately puts Ken in his place and as the story evolves, it may be Ken who survives with the notion that, as Rothko exhorts him early on, he may be the son who kills the father.  Director Michael Grandage’s hand is invisible as the story unfolds flawlessly.  The best credit one can give a director is when his work appears so naturally. 

Ken knows that he is in the presence of something great and allows that being a part of it is an education that can be gained in no other way.  The two discuss philosophy and in a stroke of genius, Logan has Ken compare Rothko to Apollo and Pollack to Dionysus in masterful strokes.  Rothko says that painting is ninety percent observation and thinking and ten percent laying on of the paint.  The physical action of laying the ground for one of the painter’s huge canvases is, simply, a dance in Red.

Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowicz in Russia, moving at the age of ten to Portland to be with his family.  After a three year separation and only months after his arrival in the United States, his father passed away, leaving a hole in the young man’s spirit.  This loss seems to have permeated the life of the painter, who began with making figurative artwork and after moving to New York and being influenced by abstract  expressionists like Jackson Pollack began what became an obsession with large fields of color. 

The year is about 1958.  Downstage the fourth wall becomes the mural that Rothko was commissioned to paint for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagrams Building in New York City.  From time to time the actors come down to contemplate the work. Inspiration comes and goes.  Scenic designer Christopher Oram’s practical atelier where Rothko worked toward the end of his life and career is excellently crafted and is supplemented by Neil Austin’s lights which almost become another character in the play, as do the sound cues by Adam Cork.  It is spare, but active with huge canvases upstage and Rothko and Ken working in concert with panels on a large rolling  easel.   

Rothko’s ego splashes all about the stage unbound.  The man arrives at the studio from home dressed in suit and tie and then transforms into the artist.   This is his calling, his work, his profession, his life.  At one point in a discussion about the demise of Jackson Pollack, Rothko calls the splatter artist’s death a suicide.  “He didn’t commit suicide,” Ken responds.  Then Rothko enumerates all of the contributing factors that led the hard drinking wild man from Wyoming to hit a winding country lane in an Oldsmobile convertible at break neck speed.  “If that’s not suicide, I don’t know what is.  My suicide" he says, "won’t be so ambiguous.”
The heady dialogue is fodder for debate and elucidation.   For artists and those who fancy themselves ‘in the know’ about contemporary art, it’s a wonderful colloquy.  For fans of Molina, he does it again and again, stepping out of the way to allow Rothko's complex character to emerge: ebb and flow and flood the stage.  Young Groff holds his own and in a huge speech meets the famous artist head on in a way that shocks and surprises but at the same time necessitates the next steps for both the youngster and the master.  It’s a masterful play and a wonderful production with nuance and laughs and performances worthy of more praise than I can find words for here.  Tickets are dear.  Go anyway.
Michael Sheehan
By John Logan
Mark Taper Forum
Los Angeles Music Center
135 North Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Phone: 213-972-7211
$100 top
Closes September 9, 2012

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