Whether you’re an art lover or someone who’s looked at nonrepresentational art and thought, “My six-year-old could do that,” Goodman Theatre’s production of Red is for you.
This play offers humor as well as fascinating insights into the work of Mark Rothko, a major American artist who's considered an abstract expressionist, a term Rothko detested. We go into his studio, see how he works, and hear what he thinks about art. A commission for a series of murals in the Four Seasons restaurant brings him the success he both desires and fears; there's a price for his success. And we see the young assistant, Ken, who may be one of the “small mammals” coming to replace the “dinosaur” Rothko.
Yet playwright John Logan says, “I think audiences respond to the flamboyant grandeur and intensity of the character, but what really moves them is the father-son relationship between these two men. To me the play is really not about art or painting at all; it’s about fathers and sons.” Specifically Logan and his own father, the playwright said in a recent interview.
The Tony Award-winning Red provides a lot of food for thought in a 100-minute play.
“What do you see?” Rothko asks young Ken.
We ask ourselves the same question as we look at the large red and black shapes on the canvas hanging center stage: What do we see? And just like that, we’re involved in Logan’s two-man play that traces the changing nature of the relationship between an older successful artist and a younger aspiring one.
Every change of scene in this play without an intermission is marked by the change to a different Rothko painting and a different tone in the men’s relationship.
There are a few moments of stillness at the opening of the play before the bristling energy of Edward Gero as Mark Rothko drives the play forward. The first crackling lines of dialogue show us a monumentally self-absorbed older man questioning and bullying a slim young man in a suit (Patrick Andrews), who comes hoping to be Rothko’s assistant.
The actors offer an interesting contrast in physical stature and emotional power in the opening scene. Gero, who spent a year researching Rothko, is totally convincing as an artist of high intelligence, broad learning, deep thought, and tremendous sensitivity and concern for his paintings. Sensitivity and concern for people, not so much.
Patrick Andrews, equally believable as Rothko’s assistant, plays a fictional character, so instead of researching a real person, he had to create his young character’s past life.
We feel that Rothko isn’t so much changing during the play as being more fully revealed, while Ken’s character has an arc and Andrews expertly conveys each step in his growth.
Both men throw themselves into a wonderfully energetic scene in which the two men lay on the first coat of paint on a canvas in a minute-and-20-second orgasmically frenzied scene, followed by their exhaustion, recovery, and a surprising aftermath. (Gero’s blog of the process of preparing for the play, including some footage of Gero and Andrews learning to apply the base color to the canvas (first with water, then with paint) can be found at http://geroasrothko.wordpress.com/ )
All aspects of the production are excellent, starting with Artistic Director Robert Falls’ direction for this American premiere. While a British production in New York followed the original opening in London, playwright Logan has said, “I always knew I wanted the first major original American production of Red to take place in Chicago, the city where I was ‘Ken’—an aspiring artist just starting out in a thrilling time of talent and opportunity.”
The setting in Rothko’s high-ceilinged Bowery studio in New York City in the late 1950s is satisfyingly realized, with its clutter of canvases, paint buckets, lots of paint brushes, and a single green Adirondack chair, by set designer Todd Rosenthal.
One of the delights of the production is seeing the studio and the details of Rothko’s work: watching the “cooking” of paint in a bucket over a burner, seeing some of the work for which Ken was hired (building frames over which he staples canvas and helping Rothko hoist large canvases onto a vertical rig for painting and viewing).
Richard Woodbury’s original music and sound design draw us in from the beginning of the play, providing some nice variety to the sound of the men’s voices, sometimes in the background or highlighting one especially exciting scene and indicating the differences in musical taste of the characters.
Similarly, the costume design by Birgit Rattenborg Wise effectively sets the period and reinforces the generation gap between the two characters.
Keith Parham provides a soft, protective light for the paintings in the studio that we can’t appreciate until we suddenly see the studio and the art in a startlingly different way.
170 North Dearborn Street
Chicago, IL 60601
Tickets ($25 – $84) are currently on sale at GoodmanTheatre.org
Mezztix are half-price mezzanine tickets available at 12 noon at the box office, and at 10am online (promo code MEZZTIX) day of performance; Mezztix are not available by telephone. 10Tix are $10 rear mezzanine tickets for students available at 12 noon at the box office, and at 10am online on the day of performance; 10Tix are not available by telephone; a valid student I.D. must be presented when picking up the tickets; limit four per student with I.D. All tickets are subject to availability and handling fees apply.
Discounted Group Tickets for 10 persons or more are available at 312.443.3820.