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THEATER REVIEW: “Red” is thought-provoking play about artist Mark Rothko

Art is always about seeing; plays are about listening. Both are required for “Red,” John Logan’s riveting Tony-winning play about artist Mark Rothko, playing through Sept. 9 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants and a product of the artistic generation born out of German expressionism, Rothko refused labels, determined to paint what he wanted – blurred blocks of various colors, described by critics (much to his annoyance) as “multiform” – rather than what was in fashion.

He is said to have remarked to art critic Harold Rosenberg, “I don’t express myself in my paintings; I express my not-self.” His purpose as an artist: “I am here to stop your heart, you understand? I am here to make you think....I am not here to make pretty pictures.”

“Red” imagines the relationship between the crotchety Rothko (Alfred Molina, reprising his London and New York roles) and his fictional wet-behind-the-ears assistant, fledgling artist Ken (Jonathan Groff).

Rothko starts with a long recitation of expectations, ending with a curt “If you don’t like that, leave right now. Answer me. Yes or no.”

This irascible, unhappy genius broods, rages, ponders, shouts and makes life miserable – but never boring – for the young aspiring artist.

After an embarrassing start in which Ken admits that his favorite artist is Jackson Pollock, they establish a working relationship and begin to discuss – and argue about – the nature of art and its place in history and people’s lives. And despite Rothko’s denials, he actually does teach the youngster (and us).

He encourages Ken to read Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy,” for instance, which juxtaposes Dionysus (“the god of wine and excess, of movement and transformation”) with Apollo (“the god of order, method and boundaries”). Ken does, and posits Pollock as Dionysus to Rothko’s Apollo.

There is an indelible scene in which the two apply a red undercoat to a new canvas, to Mozart’s Queen of the Night as background music. Rothko will do the upper half, Ken the lower; they begin at the same moment and joyously slather the paint, working quickly, spilling here and there, swooping around and over each other. It’s the most eloquent illustration of the creative process I’ve seen onstage.

“Red” takes place during a critically important time for Rothko – 1958-59, when this determined anti-establishment artist is working on a commission. Famous architect Philip Johnson asked Rothko for a series of murals to be installed in the new Seagram Building’s exclusive Four Seasons restaurant in New York.

Ken calls him on his hypocrisy: “The High Priest of Modern Art is painting a wall in the Temple of Consumption. You rail against commercialism in art, but pal, you’re taking the money.” (It was a lot of money: $35,000, at the time equivalent to seven times the average American’s annual salary.)

(Historically, Rothko thought they were for the building’s lobby; when he found out the destination walls were in the restaurant, he refused to deliver them.)

Molina is an irascible wonder, commanding the stage, striding around the studio, looking at, nay stalking the canvas, looking, thinking, looking some more, raging at Ken, looking some more. He’s a bald-headed time bomb, touched by both greatness and madness, and utterly riveting to watch.

Groff’s Ken is a fitting foil, the rather timid wannabe who finally comes into his own.

This is a piece for the thinking playgoer. There are ideas galore here, equally fascinating, equally provocative.

“There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend,” he tells Ken. “One day the black will swallow the red.”

The black did swallow him in 1970, when he cut his arms and bled to death in his studio.

“Red” is a fitting tribute.

The details

“Red” plays through Sept. 9 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles.

Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2:30 and 8 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm.

For tickets, call (213) 628-2772 or visit ¬HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.