Friday, October 17, 2014

With "Red," Indiana Repertory Theatre brings the glory of dim, artificial light into the world of Mark Rothko

The question John Logan's Mark Rothko asks his assistant twice at crucial points — "What do you see?" — receives the same answer: "Red," the play's title.

Dressed for success, Ken arrives at Mark Rothko's studio in IRT's "Red"
In between the artist's tantrum the first time Ken says "red" and his musing silence the second time falls the shadow. In Indiana Repertory Theatre's new production, the shadow is the deepening anxiety of a modernist hero confronting the place of his celebrated art in the parallel universe of Manhattan wealth and prestige.

"Red" takes place at the end of a decade in which Rothko had come into his own, along with a crowded generation of abstract expressionists who made New York the world art capital for the first time. In 1951, Rothko had posed with other new stars for a photograph, giving the camera a guarded, slightly pained look. "The Irascibles," they were dubbed.

Logan's play focuses on Rothko's concentration at the end of the '50s on a coveted commission to produce murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. The place was ostentatiously upscale from the planning stage on, well before the word "upscale" came into vogue. As both concept and reality, the Four Seasons stands at the opposite pole from everything Rothko holds important in art and life.

James Still, IRT playwright in residence
The artist is eminently irascible as he takes on Ken to be his assistant. The hiring interview is brutal. Under James Still's direction, Henry Woronicz (Rothko) and Zach Kenney (Ken) forge a relationship whose very foundation seems dysfunctional. Yet it works somehow, even though the audience is never allowed to become comfortable with it.

The play subjects us to an abundance of art talk, most of it designed to honor Rothko's few acknowledged art heroes (Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Turner, Matisse) as well as to make clear what parts of the recent cultural past deserve obliteration. Ken is pilloried as shallow, uneducated, glib and unworthy of being taken seriously. The playwright provides the character with one horrible secret in his background whose emergence gives the young artist, nervously hiding his light under a bushel, the substance needed to offset Rothko's aggressiveness and self-absorption.

The real Rothko's most astute critic, Harold Rosenberg, identified him as a "one-idea" artist. Logan skillfully exploits the constriction this puts upon Rothko's artistry and humanity alike. "The art of one idea is full of painful contradictions," Rosenberg writes. "It transforms the studio into a sanctuary but also into an isolation cell."

Ann Sheffield's set and Jesse Klug's lighting are sensitive to this double purpose. Coming into a sanctuary as a visitor, the only proper response is worship and awe. Coming into the same space considered as an isolation cell, the visitor can only be an intruder. Ken is forced to embody both contradictory responses. As Kenney plays him, he convincingly breaks through the limits — not surprising, since we are supposed to believe he puts up with Rothko for two years, working banker's hours (as the artist wryly points out). The character would otherwise be in danger of becoming a mere whipping-boy.

Woronicz's portrayal is saturated with emotional authenticity and, like a Rothko painting,  edge-to-edge resonance.  One of the signs of great acting is not needing a line to answer another actor's, but responding wordlessly and advancing the action by stance, posture and carriage. Woronicz does that twice, once reflecting the impact of the young man's tale of childhood horror (though he's later cruel enough to mock it), then being deflated by Ken's withering critique of his boss' self-perpetuating artistic fantasies.

Ken is on to something that's vividly sketched out in Logan's realization of Rothko's crisis. Rosenberg writes that Rothko once told him: "I don't express myself in my painting. I express my not-self." Departing fully from the abstract expressionism of gesture, figure and form, Rothko's paintings glory in shimmering masses of glowing pigment. The masses complement each other almost statically, never vying for predominance. Their false depth is an illusion dependent on the viewer's willingness to engage with large, enigmatic, flat surfaces, unencumbered by any need to "get" the enigma.

For some viewers, such characteristics connote spirituality — and Logan's Rothko is necessarily taken in by this significance, which fuels his uneasiness with the Four Seasons commission. But it is a strange kind of spirituality, exclusive and self-denying to a fault, more unsettling than charismatic. The critic Brian O'Doherty has noted Rothko paintings' "urgent nostalgia for another time or place — so much so, indeed, that one often wishes to escape from his pictures so that one can remember them instead."

I recall that feeling from my visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston in 1971. These large black paintings in a darkened space  — even when his palette was broader, Rothko favored dim light — struck me as something it would be good to get away from. Being aware of the dark panels' presence underlined an overwhelming feeling of sensory privation. I appreciated having seen them more than I did seeing them.

When an artist insists he is expressing his "not-self" in his work — and succeeds — his self is left with nothing to do but bang around in his non-art life and get into trouble. This tends to come out in the unpalatable form of careerism, which Rothko deplored and wanted to distance himself from.

Henri Matisse: "The Red Studio"
His only way of avoiding such unpleasantness was to imagine the paintings as emblems of a pure present he was charged with protecting. With Rothko, considering the past charitably takes one away from the art, except for a few beacon-like images. One of them for him is "The Red Studio" by Henri Matisse.

But look at the claustrophobic trap that painting's pervasive red surrounds the art with, like insects preserved in amber. If Rothko had wanted to celebrate Matisse's way with red, it would have been healthier to hold up "Harmony in Red." Those buoyant arabesques! That enchanting female figure, at a table with fruit! The view outside! But that would have required a different Rothko, with a different temperament — and thus foreign to "Red."

"Harmony in Red": A healthier paean to the color?
Logan's Rothko is largely dismissive of his early life: Does he remember Cossacks in his native Russia throwing bodies into ditches, or just that he was told about the pogroms? It doesn't matter to him.

With the color red symbolizing hope, as Logan's Rothko declares, the threat of its being overcome by black has to mean the end of hope. Rothko in "Red"  would rather say that black stands for the tragedy of failing to balance the Apollonian and Dionysian sides of one's nature.

His tragedy is worse than that, however: If you remove yourself from the flow of time — the inevitable locale in which art is created and life is lived — you abandon hope, which lives in the future. Past and future enfeebled, the artist is at war with himself, especially when he has erected his art upon the almost inaccessible rigor of not-self.

In his great story "The Garden of Forking Paths," Jorge Luis Borges has his narrator say something frighteningly pertinent to Rothko's dilemma. Similar thoughts may have frightened Rothko to death — by suicide in 1970.

"I foresee that man will resign himself each day to more atrocious undertakings: soon there will be no one but warriors and brigands; I give them this counsel. The author of an atrocious undertaking ought to imagine that he has already accomplished it, ought to impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past."

It may have been necessary, it may even have been heroic, but in some sense the Rothko way forward was an atrocious undertaking. That's why it's so hard to like the Rothko whom Logan sets before us, and why our pity for the agonized artist feels overwhelming as the 95-minute drama runs its course.

Pity has been a hallmark of great tragedy since the beginning. "Red" may not belong in the most exalted company — even King Lear seems to me the least satisfying of Shakespeare's tragic heroes because he demands too much pity — but IRT's production of Logan's searing drama is fully worthy of admiration. And, despite its unlovable subject, of love — which rises above pity.

 [Photo credit, IRT production: Zach Rosing]

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