De Kooning. Pollock. Rothko. Giants of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Killers of Surrealism, only to be swept aside themselves by Pop Art. At least, that’s how the legend goes (even Rothko would disagree with the precise classifications). But is a revolutionary’s story compelling if it doesn’t end in a young, glorious death? In Red, playwright John Logan sets up his genius protagonist to play defense against the onslaught of age and change. His Mark Rothko is engaged in a constant struggle against accusations of hypocrisy and potential irrelevance, while his paintings stand silent, their internal monologues quietly stealing the scene.
A joint production between Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Arena Stage, Red is an exploration of an important moment in the life of artist Mark Rothko (played by Ed Gero). He took on a commission in the late 1950’s to produce murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building, itself a gorgeous modernist tower designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. We’re supposed to feel somewhat shocked that Rothko would paint for this much money, would consent to house his paintings in a consumerist palace (as if Michelangelo never did anything similar for the Medici, but conveniently forgetting our art history, let’s say it is shocking). Rothko claimed to want his murals to disquiet the diners. The commission was certainly one of the most lucrative of its day. Red encapsulates that struggle between art and consumerism (on the verge of Pop Art’s embrace of it) in the relationship between Rothko and his young assistant, and if it did nothing else, the battle between the two would still make for a fascinating and unnerving evening. Continue reading