By John Logan
Directed by Tim Hedgepeth
8:00 pm Fri & Sat, 2:30 Sun
San Pedro Playhouse
800 West Ashby
Through Feb 17
In one of the most notorious episodes in the history of modern art, Nelson Rockefeller ordered the destruction of a mural he had commissioned from Diego Rivera. It was supposed to adorn Rockefeller Center, but because it included the image of Vladimir Lenin, Rockefeller deemed the work inappropriate to his temple of capitalism.
Two decades later, in 1958, Mark Rothko was commissioned to paint murals for the posh Four Seasons Restaurant in the newly completed Seagram Building in New York. However, the realization that his exquisite art would serve merely as prestigious wallpaper for wealthy, philistine diners was so appalling that Rothko withdrew his work and returned the commission. Playwright John Logan sets Red during the time Rothko is preparing his Seagram panels (a decade before his more successful bid to create transcendent space, the Rothko Chapel in Houston). Logan invents an eager art student, Rothko’s new assistant, Ken, as a device to elicit Rothko’s pungent observations about art, civilization, death, and much else. Red is an intense two-character piece, a dramatic dialogue dominated by an overbearing but fascinating monologist.
As Rothko, Andrew Thornton is opinionated, passionate, and utterly riveting. If, as he insists, “There’s tragedy in every brush stroke,” there’s also lightning in each line that Thornton enunciates as if branding his words into a listener’s flesh. He even looks a bit like Rothko, though he makes no attempt to simulate the accent of the Latvian-born painter, who came to the United States at age 10 and to English as his fourth language, after Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Whether issuing pronouncements, venting his rage, or merely gazing at his own enigmatic canvases, Thornton’s Rothko is a force of nature and a prodigy of art. A highlight of the play comes just after Rothko and Ken rapidly cover a canvas in red. Watching paint dry was never so thrilling.
As Ken, Rodman Bolek faces the challenge of fleshing out a foil. He enters Rothko’s studio as timorous factotum to a master who puts him on notice that he is an employee, not an apprentice. Though Rothko rejects the role of mentor, which is exactly the part he plays, teaching by example the importance of independent perception. “What do you see?” he keeps asking, refusing any facile response. Eventually, Ken learns enough from Rothko, who considers himself a peer of Rembrandt, Turner, and Matisse and the scourge of lesser successors such as Motherwell, Rauschenberg, and Stella, to challenge him: “You’re nothing but a solipsistic bully.” Rothko has learned enough to recognize some truth in the accusation as well as the fact that his acolyte has outgrown him.
Irked that Ken prefers Jackson Pollock, Rothko belittles the flamboyant abstract expressionist who died driving drunk, calling it “a lazy suicide.” In 1970, Rothko himself would take his own life. Red commitsthe fallacy of retrospection by which the suicidal endings of, for example, Vincent van Gogh and Sylvia Plath determine all thoughts about their lives. Forever brooding over art as a trick to cheat mortality, Rothko tells Ken: “There’s only one thing in life I am afraid of, my friend — One day the black will swallow the red.” In a lustrous production directed by Tim Hedgepeth, Red brings Rothko back to vivid life.