Wednesday, October 26, 2011

John Logan’s "Red": The Agon of Western Civilization in 95 minutes

      Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of John Logan’s Red compels in every detail.  The set-up is simple.  Mark Rothko, the most famous Abstract-Expressionist, won the commission to provide the murals for The Four Seasons restaurant located in the Seagram Building.  He hired an assistant so that he could properly complete what became a monumental task.  The play is in five scenes, or confrontations, between Rothko and his assistant Ken as they come to grips with one another as intellectuals, artistic creators, mentor and protégé, romantic idealists and pragmatic successes, and most profoundly as relevant human beings.  

      It’s a shrewdly naturalistic work in that it refers to Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and the binary relationship between the forces of Apollo (intellectualism and form) versus Dionysus (passion and madness) while presenting the form of a Greek tragedy (an odd number of scenes without intermission, one specific conflict or agon, and hubris, or pride).  Rothko is the epitome of the classical tragic hero in that he displays
extraordinary pride, but also the modern protagonist’s mercurial (another completely different Roman god) temperament.  His nature would be couched in contemporary psychiatric terms as bipolar, and the play touches on Freudianism, though it seems to dismiss it.  The main conflict is the Old King (Rothko) versus the New King (Ken, who’s far greater in his discernment and commitment than he initially appears as a polite ‘Ken doll’) and it’s expressed through the birth, maturation, and completion of a relationship.  Rothko’s eventual suicide is foreshadowed visually in a scene that is initially disquieting and then darkly comic through Ken’s reactions.

      Brian Dykstra as Rothko and Matthew Carlson as Ken are everything a viewer could ask for.  It’s hard to imagine that Alfred Molina or Eddie Redmayne were better and they both won Tonys.  Dykstra starts as wild, caustic, and arrogant and grows in stature as an artistic genius who survived as a Jew in Russia on the run from Cossacks, though Dionysian forces are beginning to overpower him.  He also physically bears a resemblance to Rothko and persuasively presents a Jewish New York intellectual at mid-20th century physically.  Carlson begins as a tabula rasa that he fills to completion and with complexity – much of it through the tonal notes of his voice – by the end of the play.  

      Steven Woolf’s direction is disarmingly elegant, though he immediately underscores the tension from the beginning through Dykstra’s movement in opposition to Carlson’s stasis.  Dorothy Englis’s costumes pinpoint a specific milieu, Michael Ganio’s set is both realistic (an artist’s studio/loft) and symbolic (we’re in Rothko’s head), and Paul Monat’s lighting is sharp and ultimately profound in the last image where Rothko’s paintings and Rothko pulsate, though the works are saturated in red while the artist stands in a square of clear, gray light.

Red runs through Saturday, November 12.

Dexter Laying On His Rothko Rug

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