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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Brushing with Greatness

REVERSALS AND REVELATIONS are the exciting stuff of drama, with playwrights struggling to outdo themselves and one another with the surprises they can cook up for their characters. John Logan’s “Red,” currently receveiving its regional premiere at Albany’s Capital Repertory Theatre, is a study at the creative process as exemplified by the character of doomed Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. It’s a rarefied script that demands some familiarity not only with that art movement but also ones that preceded and followed it, and it doesn’t hurt to have read a little Nietzsche.

Kevin McGuire and David Kenner
in "Red" | Photo by Joseph Schuyler
But it’s a script ultimately crafted for a Broadway audience (it netted six Tony awards), which prefers a predictable range of controversy and emotion. In the play’s opening moments, Rothko welcomes his new assistant, Ken, with a barrage of intimidating, Mamet-esque questions that set Rothko as an irascible rascal in the Gulley Jimson tradition, but with less charm. Kevin McGuire, who has skilfully transformed himself into a resonant simulacrum of the shambling artist, holds his own well against the continual challenge of fighting the script’s predictable tropes – but the journey he’s given is that of godlike artist to godlike but further disillusioned artist as he counters the carpings of the difficult-to-believe-in Ken.

The play is set during a significant crisis point in Rothko’s life, when he was working on a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurants, a commission about which he had mixed feelings – “I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room,” he told the editor of Harper’s magazine – and which he ultimately backed out of, returning his fee. There was precedent: he’d returned a Guggenheim award check the year before, but “Red” presents it as a Ken-provoked action.

And that’s fine as a dramatic device, but the pathway towards is marked by a too-forced set of those reversals and revelations. Ken’s big reveal is a personal tragedy that, except for its oversized, too-metaphorically-perfect nature, comes right out of the Playwright’s Guidebook. We’re warned that Freud and Jung might figure into this story, but we’re given no hint until then of how blatantly.

Rothko paints to the accompaniment of Schubert and Bach, but a big moment set to a brutally cut movement of Vivaldi has the painters brushing a foundation of red onto a large canvas. They sweat. They’re frenzied. They bond. And this sets Ken on the path of predictable reversal.

We’ve already heard Rothko criticize such foregoing phenomena as Cubism (although he was more likely to attack the movement of which he was considered a part). It’s up to Ken, then, not only to assault Rothko’s classical-music shrine with Chet Baker but also to invoke the hated names of Warhol and Lichtenstein (anachronistically early, but the 1960s have long since seeped into the adjacent decades).

As Ken, David Kenner gives a bouncy, high-voltage performance that’s probably the best way to inhabit a character so brimming with cliché. His tragedy is too wonderfully appropriate to be believed; whatever provokes him to turn on Rothko seems to come from nowhere.

But then there’s matter of the canvas we never see.

It’s wrapped in brown paper, placed to one side in Rothko’s studio, and, as Ken explains in a phone call right out of the “maid answering the phone” school of cheap exposition, it’s his own work, something he hopes to show his employer.

As an audience member, I seek the comfort of dramatic integrity. Anger me, confuse me, depress me, throw me some good laughs and I’m with you. But the Broadway-pleasing predictable grows tiresome. So I took that unseen canvas as a kind of Chekhovian gun and challenged myself to discover its justification.

It’s Rothko’s dream of the perfect piece of art, the ideal he longed to realize in his work as he lamented, late in life, that he could have been a excellent watercolorist. Ken, the kid, therefore becomes a dream-projection of Rothko’s inner antagonism. In the first part, he is reckoning with demons of the past, redefining his position in relation both to history and his own creative sense.

Such peace as he makes with this is exemplified by the painting scene, in which he assimilates those demons into his art, preparing the way for reckoning with his future. We’re teased with what could be seen as another cheap device when his eventual and possibly self-inflicted death is foreshadowed, but in the dream-scenario I’m positing, it would exist as a possiblilty.

Finally, a glimpse into the soon-to-come success of Pop Art, achieved almost overnight, in annoying contrast to the many decades it took for Rothko and his contemporaries to achieve recognition. And it’s a fitting scenario to play out in the artist’s studio: as Rothko wrote in 1947, “I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame.”

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