PBS is currently streaming concerts, Broadway musicals, and plays online from their library – some are free to view and, depending on the PBS station that pops up when you click the link, some appear to require a Passport membership. (This does if you live in Maryland).
One such offering is the 2018 West End revival of “Red.” First produced by the Donmar Warehouse in London, the play transferred to Broadway and was the 2010 Tony winner for Best Play. It was written by John Logan and directed by Michael Grandage. Alfred Molina reprised his 2010 Tony-nominated role as the genius abstract expressionist, Mark Rothko, who influenced American modern art until his death in 1970. In the role of Ken, a young assistant hired to help Rothko, is the talented, young actor, Alfred Enoch.
Rothko was a complicated individual. He was born in Latvia to a communist Jewish family who moved to Portland, Oregon when he was ten. His art is most memorable for the use of massive canvases and for the artist’s large swaths of color, often in unrestricted, large lines going across his work. As this play opens, Rothko is now famous and has been commissioned to paint three pictures for the new Four Seasons Restaurant in the soon-to-be-finished Seagram’s Building in Manhattan Ken has been hired to help build and prime the canvases, mix paints, and run a myriad of errands.
“Great theatre should entertain, and make us think and learn more about our world. This play does all three thanks to the fine direction, superb acting and a great script.“
At first Ken, whose name is never really spoken, is awed by the genius. Ken is an aspiring artist himself. As time goes on (which in reality was two or three years) the two open up to each other about their feelings about art, other contemporary artist and classical artists – and their own reasons for being drawn to their medium of self-expression. We learn Rothko’s feelings about Picasso, Dali, Pollack, Johns, and Lichtenstein, to name a few. Pollack’s art, Rothko believes, is emotion while his is intellect. Rothko has a huge ego. Ken tries to get the artist to face his own hypocrisy – after years of being staunchly pro-labor, he has accepted this commission to create a work for New York aristocracy. (Rothko states he wants patrons at the restaurant to choke when they look at his work.)
Rothko states, “You can’t be an artist until you are civilized.” Yet, at times, he is not very civil to his assistant, never asking him anything about his own history or asking to see the young man’s own art. Rothko’s use of black in his art is due to his own fear of death and darkness. “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend…One day the black will swallow the red.” In comparing himself to the likes of Lichtenstein and Warhol, Rothko states, “We understand the importance of seriousness.”
The time goes so quickly as we watch the two ready the canvases, listen to music on the phonograph, and argue about the meaning of art and life.
Molina is outstanding as Rothko. The audience never believes his is anyone but the artist. The same is true for Enoch. He gives a wonderful performance as the young, complex assistant.
It is hard when you are seeing a film of a play to judge the set and lighting. However, the large canvases and white walls splashed with paint are engrossing in their own way.
You do not have to be an art aficionado to appreciate this production of two men one at the end of his career and life and the other just beginning. Great theatre should entertain, and make us think and learn more about our world. This play does all three thanks to the fine direction, superb acting, and a great script.
Running Time: One hour and 33 minutes