Famous impressionist painter Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina) is hiring a new assistant. Pretentious and self-involved with a hair-trigger predilection for tirades of all manner, he scrutinizes his would-be apprentice, Ken (Jonathan Groff). Green as they come, young Ken is eager to learn, to please and to absorb all that he can from Rothko, one of the greatest painters of this modern time. With introductions going as smoothly as one could hope with an “artist” like Rothko, Ken is hired to help on Rothko's latest commission, a series of paintings for the new Four Season restaurant.
Ken had learned his employer’s likes, dislikes, idiosyncrasies and temperament. Ken wants to show his paintings to Rothko, but bides his time, until the moment that he feels he has his mentor’s respect. But days go by, and Rothko’s ranting lectures slowly become an exchange between the men. Months go by, and the exchange becomes engaging debate. Years go by and debate morphs into a mild animosity for Ken. It becomes increasing clear that a crucial transition in their relationship may not be coming at all. Rothko shows only a fleeting interest in Ken personally. Ultimately Ken has to re-examine the relationship – that Rothko has always claimed to be nothing more than employer to employee. Ken must decide, despite how much the painter talks, if Rothko truly has wisdom he is trying to impart, or is the egomaniacal artist speaks in a stream of imperial rants just to hear himself talk.
It would take a true fan of art to keep track of all the names of master painters dropped in this play (I was a little surprised at how many were familiar to me). But knowing art is not essential to understanding or enjoying this fine production. The point is not to visually know their work. The point is to understand that every artist has a process of creating their inspiration, of executing their vision and that they have no control over how it is received by the world. Ken is probably the first person in a long time who, not only illuminates this fact to Rothko, but who demands that Rothko respect both the masters of old and masters of the future. Furthermore, Ken insists that Rothko accept his own place among them.
Red is a wonderful piece that examines the dilemma of being an artist: How success can lead to banality; Does work have to be transformative for it to be art, can’t art just be pretty and presentational? Creative people will undoubtedly identify with both characters: one artist at the brink of finding his voice, and one in the twilight of greatness.
Fiercely visual despite its striking simplicity, the production design expertly manifests, before our eyes, the stunning, meticulous images pouring out of these characters. Simultaneously, this show is intellectually exhausting, with emotional, humorous performances that make it impossible to choose side in this debate of art versus commerce.
Red is a breathtaking pas de deux about the nature and purpose of art, and the place of the artist’s ego in this dance with his or her audience. Alfred Molina’s Rothko is a living manifesto of an artist’s brazen, unapologetic passion; he is a remarkable presence on stage. Jonathan Groff’s Ken is smart and patient, evolving into a voice that this mentor not only hears, but comes to respect. Molina and Groff are brilliantly matched as mentor and student, trading barbs and standing toe to toe, each defending their vision about of what art is and should be.
Red is running now through September 9, 2012 @
Mark Taper Forum
at the Music Center
downtown Los Angeles
135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012