The Red and the Black: A Play about Rothko at SCR
Red, by John Logan, is a play about the business of being an artist — the commissions, the professional jealousies, the rivalries between generations and the physical and mental act of putting paint to canvas. Originally staged in London in 2009 and now at South Coast Repertory through February 21, the play features Mark Harelik as the painter Mark Rothko — at the height of his success in 1958, newly commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant at Manhattan’s Seagram Building — and Paul David Story as his newly-hired assistant, Ken.
Directed by SCR co-founder David Emmes, the five acts of the play take place entirely in Rothko’s Bowery studio, an old gym with high windows. Large paintings hang all around, auditioning for their place as part of the commission. The action starts with a master class on looking as Rothko gazes out into the auditorium, toward an imagined canvas separating audience and stage, and asks his fresh-faced new assistant: “What do you see?”
With bald pate and mustache, Harelik captures Rothko’s look of the 1950s, occasionally looking like You Bet Your Life-era Groucho Marx and always more than a little grouchy. He doesn’t really want an answer from his assistant. The younger painter hasn’t read the right books, hasn’t seen enough of life. “You call yourself an artist?” he scoffs. “What do they teach you in art school now?” [To which a recent MFA graduate in the audience answers: “Nothing!”]
Being an artist is tough work, and for Rothko it hasn’t come quickly: Through the Great Depression, through the years in which “we destroyed Cubism,” as he says of his generation of artists, it’s taken a long time to reach this stage in his career. Finally he has work that is selling. Finally he has earned a large — perhaps embarrassingly large — commission, but he is not happy with the people who buy his work, not impressed with the bankers who will eat at such a restaurant.
“Selling a picture is like sending a blind child into a room full of razor blades,” he complains, neither the first nor the last mention of razors.
The conversation he wants is not with the power brokers of modern capitalism but with the great artists of the past — his friend Jackson Pollock, dead too young, the romantic ideal of a modern painter, but even more so with the likes of Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Turner. It was in Matisse’s The Red Studio of 1911 that he had his first experience of the red that now haunts his own canvases — and with it the small bit of black that threatens to swallow everything. But what he didn’t seem to realize while stomping Cubism to death is that history keeps moving; suddenly he catches sight of the upstarts nipping at his heels: Rauschenberg, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns.
A younger artist like Ken is able to embrace the bold primary colors of Pop Art, art which is about “this moment, right now, and a little bit tomorrow,” but he too has his darkness. As a child, his parents were murdered. Memories of the white snow of that day and of the dark red of the blood remain with him still. He occasionally paints portraits of the burglars who committed the terrible act.
Although we can’t know what his future will be, and can’t necessarily be sure that he will find his way as a successful artist, he nevertheless shows himself to be resilient. As played by Story, he convincingly holds his own against the famous artist.
Rothko will eventually die in his pool of red. Only posthumously will he get quite the reverential chapel to his art, and his art alone, that he always so desired.
The play Red runs through February 21, 2016, at South Coast Repertory.
SCR is offering a promotional tie-in with discounted admission to several local museums.
South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92626