Mark Rothko has long been a luminary name at the upper echelons of the international art world. Considered one of the major names of the postwar Abstract Expressionist movement (although he himself eschewed any such allegiance) his so-called "mythomorphic" abstractionism holds many influences from literature, art history and psychology. Rothko himself worked hard to continue the avant-garde traditions of artistic expression as a weapon of war; he was repulsed by art as decoration, and worked conscientiously to differentiate his art from the world of decor and design.
In Ashland Contemporary Theatre's production of "Red," the language is rich, the dialogue is crackling and the energy of this particular production is a delightful dive into the often misunderstood and rarely appreciated world of the working painter — specifically during the evolution of the New York art scene from the late 1950s through to the 1960s.
Thanks to some clever staging by directors Peter Alzado and Jeannine Grizzard, we are thrust into the action of the play, with immersive seating that encroaches onto the set. (Note: The first two weekends of the show's run were staged at Grizzly Peak Winery; the last two will be at the Ashland Community Center, with staging adapted to the space.) Surrounded by the accouterments of the professional painter, there is an intimacy to the experience of watching the actors work that is both unnerving and intoxicating. It is a credit to the performers that they manage to keep the fourth wall intact, even as it is being scaled by a paying audience.
Once inside the atelier, we meet Rothko himself, played with Type-A gusto by Mr. Alzado. Alzado is a pro — he inhabits his domain like a bull poured into the body of a man. One would be hesitant to suggest that Alzado is unaware of the implications of his choices in playing Rothko. His highly intelligent take on the psyche of the artist gives the viewer deep insight into the character of a man wrestling to integrate himself into the world of his own paintings — Rothko grapples with scale on what he considers to be an inter-dimensional level, but can't seem to escape the confines of his own head, let alone of his studio.
Alzado does a stunning job of holding onto the core of the action, moving around the space like a caged animal — convincingly feral, yet somehow in chains. Rothko is owned by his art, and can only view the world through the prism of his own creative process. There is an eeriness in the staging, since the paintings at which Rothko intently stares (and the demons he confronts therein,) are not visible. We, the spectators, are on the receiving end of Alzado's intensity, since the audience is positioned where the canvas might otherwise be. As such, the impression of Rothko as a minotaur locked in a maze of aesthetic agony works brilliantly. Alzado chews up the scenery with his braggadocio and boozy colloquies, directed with belligerent authority towards his initially deferential studio assistant, Ken (Reece Bredl).
Rothko and Ken hold forth on everything, from the meaning of the color red to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. They wax rhapsodic about death, life and artistic pain. The two men bring context and historical reference to bear in the discussions about artists, past and present — Turner, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, de Kooning, El Greco, Matisse, Michelangelo, Warhol and Johns — all get the philosopher's treatment under Logan's pen.
Bredl, a young actor who hails from Washington State (the same region from which Rothko himself was disgorged onto the New York art scene in the early 1920s) has an innate capacity for timing and detail. He understands that, as Ken, he must project onto Rothko as Rothko projects onto his paintings. This is a Jungian-style triangulation to end all triangulations — Ken in thrall to Rothko, Rothko in thrall to his art, and the art existing simply for itself. On top of all this, Ken has dark memories of his own, born of a tragic history that belies his tender age.
As the second act begins, it signals a shift in the allegiance of the art world from the old to the new. Classical music being played in the studio is replaced with modal jazz. Rothko begins to look a little old and silly, while Ken emerges into his manhood, and the balance of power shifts. Bredl is skilled at creating a nuanced but clear physical transition from shy young lad to intelligent, confident adult male. As Rothko recedes into drunkenness and caricature, Ken emerges from the old man's shadow and is fully formed. The old order changes, yielding place to the new. It must always be so.
"Red" is a thrilling play. It is filled with raw and evocative language and the staging and lighting make for a captivating period piece. Interludes of exquisite classical music between scenes allow the audience time for the language to settle. It is a joy to sit through a non-pandering, intellectually sophisticated play; patrons can only hope that other small theater companies in the region will be as thoughtful and enlightened in their future offerings as ACT has been with "Red."
Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.