As the six-time Tony-award winning drama Red closed at Indiana Repertory Theatre this weekend, I couldn’t help but reflect on the wonderful experience of seeing such a brilliant work grace my local stage. Broadway is full of emotional, conflict-ridden navel-gazing dramas that leave the audience feeling heavy and distracted with thought. But Red, written by the absurdly talented John Logan, manages to fill you with an uplifting wonder of how we came to share those emotional paths and why the navel gazing can be so cathartic.
Directed by Los Angeles-resident, yet plane-hopping vagabond James Still, our regional presentation of Red features Henry Woronicz as Mark Rothko and Zach Kenney as his fresh-faced fictional assistant, Ken. The story takes place in the late 1950s, over the course of 2 years in Rothko’s career when he painted some of his most iconic creations during the fall of Abstract Expressionism and the fast rise of Pop Art.
As a man known more by his reputation than by his work today, Red takes us on a journey into the mind of Rothko, an artist struggling with fame, integrity and relevance. On the surface, it’s a story about artistry and its many tortuous hypocrisies, but beneath, it’s a story about dignity. And you don’t have to call yourself an “artiste” to understand that strain. Perhaps that is why so many have flocked to see this two-man tour-de-force and have walked away singing its praises.
Logan’s words — not a one of them wasted or unwelcome — explore all the tropes of the art world. The cliches, the audience, the buyers, the galleries, the failures, the doubts, the commercial success, and the prevailing threat of poverty are addressed and bottled up in one magnificent monologue after another. Often a 90-minute discussion on such a topic would send the Average Joe running for the bar to grab a drink and talk about football, but Logan knows how to make this heady subject not only palatable, but earnest and engaging. We, those Average Joes, by play’s end, come to empathize with both Rothko (despite his ego and pomposity) and Ken (despite his cloying need for approval and reassurance).
It’s a bit overly simplistic to insist that Ken is searching for a father figure in Rothko, but in many ways, the mentor role that Rothko does fill also comes with its own sense of familial respect and understanding. Over the course of this one-act extravaganza where the audience learns to soften toward Rothko’s hubris and respect Ken’s courage, we see a duo develop a symbiotic relationship that we recognize is exactly what the doctor ordered.
If you’re someone who didn’t study Art History in school — and most of us didn’t — you may feel a bit intimidated by Red. Sure, you’ll hear the names de Kooning, Picasso, Pollock, Kandinsky, Warhol and Leichtenstein, but have no fear if your only exposure to their work is on the back of postcards. Red isn’t about the art; it’s about the artists. For a short time, we get a glimpse at the process, the business and those in the thick of this quintessential bohemian world … even if the bohemian wears a uniform and works banker’s hours. And we walk away with greater respect for the craft, if not for the men themselves.
James Still did a brilliant job of bringing John Logan’s emotional rollercoaster to life on the Upperstage, and I feel lucky to have shared in the experience. The art lover and history buff in me couldn’t have enjoyed Woronicz and Kenney’s singular performances more if I tried. Not many writers can command this kind of compelling dialogue, and John Logan leads the class. Not too shocking for the writer behind the screenplays for Hugo, Skyfall and The Aviator.
Red lit up the Broadway stage in 2010 and has been a fixture in the regional theatre circuit ever since. And it shows no signs of falling out of favor anytime soon. This could be because it speaks to our collective desire to see through the eyes of a creative, but tortured virtuoso. Or if you’re like me, it could be because it speaks to your heart’s need to understand and respect the creative process of others so you can better embrace your own.