by Clark Groome
Abstract impressionist Mark Rothko believed that as an artist, “I’m here to stop your heart. I’m here to make you think. I’m not here to make pretty pictures.” That’s one of the central points in playwright John Logan’s engaging and enlightening “Red,” which is being given a strong Philadelphia premiere through Nov. 13 at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
Rothko never did paint pretty pictures. What he created instead were works that used blocks of color to create, he hoped, an emotional and intellectual response.
According to “Red,” Rothko was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York’s under-construction Seagram Building. The two years that he was working on his canvasses, 1958-1960, comprise the time when “Red” is set. To help him accomplish his work, he hires Ken as his assistant. Rothko makes it clear from the beginning that he is not going to be the young aspiring painter’s rabbi or teacher or father or friend; he’s only going to be his employer.
Nonetheless, over the two years that the two work together they do talk about life and art and what it is to be an artist. We learn more about the artist Rothko than we do about his art. What is clear from their conversations is that while Rothko wants his art to evoke feeling and thought, he himself couldn’t be bothered trying to find out anything about the young man who not only does his bidding but also challenges his views as an artist.
In PTC’s production, Stephen Rowe is Rothko. He blusters and strains and talks and judges, all the while referring to his paintings as though they were his living offspring. He also finds it tough to accept the changes in the art of the 1960s, which Ken (the superb Haley Joel Osment) thinks is the future, just as what Rothko and his contemporaries created was 30 years before.
While “Red” is a fiercely intelligent and challenging play, it is also a passionate investigation into the souls of its two characters, both ably limned by Rowe and Osment.
Director Anders Cato and designers James Noone (set), Alejo Vietti (costumes), Tyler Micoleau (lighting) and Josh Schmidt (sound) create an environment in which the art and the artist come alive.
Rothko says that when he was starting out, “We had nothing to lose and a vision to gain.” With that, he sends Ken out to “make something new.” It’s a tacit admission that just as his group of young artists had killed cubism, maybe the new folk — Ken included — will replace the abstract expressionists (a label Rothko always hated).
The significance of the title is that in much of Rothko’s work, red is a major component. His greatest fear, however, is that black will swallow up the red. Whether or not that’s a fear of death, or just a fear that his work won’t be appreciated, is never clear.
PTC’s fine “Red” is an intelligent bio-drama that in addition to capturing the artist’s soul is also an enlightening 90 minutes for those of us who marvel at but know little about how and why an artist what he does.
For tickets to the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of the Tony Award-winning “Red,” playing through Nov. 13, call 215-985-0420 or visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.