Thursday, September 15, 2011

RED • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

"What do you see?"

That's the first question painter Mark Rothko poses, almost pleads, to his new apprentice Ken in the opening minutes of the Rep's scorching season opener, John Logan's RED.

Mark Rothko's "multiforms" led to the development of Color Field Painting in the 1940's and 50's.  Although he is considered a master abstract expressionist, he shunned labels of any kind applied to his style.  You know -- that temperamental artist thing.

The play takes place in Rothko's 1950's art studio after he's been given a $35,000 commission (over $2 million today) to paint a series of murals for Manhattan's new Four Seasons restaurant.  Ken, an aspiring young artist himself, has been hired as Rothko's assistant.  He does everything from fetching Chinese food and preparing Rothko's canvases, to being a sounding board for the master and his intellectual ramblings.  Before Ken even has a chance to answer Rothko's initial question, he's given instructions on how to perceive his art -- "Let it work on you.  Let it pulsate.  Now what do you see?".

Brian Dykstra (Mark Rothko).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Mark Rothko didn't want his paintings to end up in the houses of people who were trying to keep up with the neighbors or high-brows convinced they should buy a "Rothko" because the New York Times told them they should buy a "Rothko".  He required the active participation of the viewer.  Having a disdain for natural lighting, Rothko was very particular about exactly how his art was to be displayed, and even who was permitted to see it.  He insists to Ken that, "You cannot be an artist until you are civilized", and although he has ensuing diatribes about the nature of art, Nietzsche, Freud and Shakespeare, they don't leave you feeling like you've just been hit over the head with intellectual babble.  Under Steven Woolf's incredible direction, it's engrossing.

Brian Dykstra (Mark Rothko) and Matthew Carlson (Ken).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Ken works for Rothko for 2 years, with Rothko taking little or no notice of the details of Ken's life.  There is one tragic aspect of Ken's childhood that he does share, but Rothko immediately suggests that Ken use it as a creative stimulus.  Ken doesn't really get many words in edgeways at the beginning, but once he grows to voice his own opinions about art and his admiration of painters like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, Rothko's doubts about his own relevance begin to peak out.  I mean, let's face it -- as Ken points out, for all of Rothko's talk full of artistic Apollonian and Dionysian comparisons, he was on the verge of providing artwork for a swanky trough for the bourgeois -- the last people prepared to appreciate his work as he intended.  It presents Rothko with soul-searching challenges that we get to witness.  In addition to these brewing self-conflicts, there is an amazing scene where Rothko and Ken prime a huge canvas together with an aria playing in the background, leaving them exhausted and splattered in red paint.  This scene is one that will keep you riveted to the edge of your seat, as will most of this play.

Matthew Carlson (Ken) and Brian Dykstra (Mark Rothko).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
The Rep is one of the first regional theatres in the country to be granted the rights to put on this production that won Tony awards for best play, featured actor, direction, scenic design, lighting design and sound design of a play.

Michael Ganio's scenic design was lovely and evocative.  Dark, immersive lighting design by Phil Monat set a beautiful tone, along with spot-on costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis.  The performances by its leads were striking.  Brian Dykstra's Mark Rothko is forceful, and pulls our attention at the outset with his gaze and keeps hold of it throughout.  Matthew Carlson's Ken shines later in the play once his character questions his boss's long-held beliefs about what art is and bravely presents his opinions about what it could be.

I was ecstatic when I found out the Rep was doing this show, and the production is no less thrilling than it was when I saw it in NYC last year.  RED is a vibrant reminder of why we go to the theatre -- engaging, visceral experiences.

Brian Dykstra (Mark Rothko) and Matthew Carlson (Ken).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Written by John Logan
Directed by Steven Woolf
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through October 2 | tickets: $22.50 - $72
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm, selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm, selected Sundays at 7pm

Brian Dykstra (Mark Rothko) and Matthew Carlson (Ken).

Scenic design by Michael Ganio; costume design by Dorothy Marshall Englis; lighting design by Phil Monat; sound design by Rusty Wandall; music consultant, Jeffrey Carter; stage manager, Glenn Dunn; assistant stage manager, Shannon B. Sturgis.

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