Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
August 31, 2012
“RED” is like a Rothko painting: unnerving, disturbing, deeper than you can fathom in one sitting.
The 2009 bio-drama is set in the 1950s, in the studio of Mark Rothko, a brilliant Abstract Expressionist who was a teacher, a scholar, an inspiration. But in his workspace, he insists that he won’t be any of these to his new assistant – especially not father or friend or shrink. He turns out to be all of these, of course, as the young artist struggles to come to terms with the older one. Rothko bellows and demeans, and gradually, Ken is emboldened. The climactic scene comes when they prime a huge canvas in red, an aggressive, exhilarating pas de deux of perfect harmony.
Ken may be looking for a father figure, his parents having died early in his life, in a harrowing story that even captures the narcissistic Rothko’s attention. But when he stiffens his spine, he gets the guts to call his mentor a hypocrite. Rothko has railed against the commercialism and commodification of his peers. And yet, he’s accepted a commission for the new Seagram Building in New York, a series of murals to be placed in the chi chi Four Seasons Restaurant.
It’s all about contrasts here, between youth and age, dark and light, classical painting and music vs. Pop Art and jazz. The intellect vs. the emotion in art. And red vs. black. To Rothko red is passion; black is its opposite, the absence of life force. His greatest fear was that the black would swallow the red. In the end, it did, though not during the course of this play. Rothko slit his wrists in 1970, at age 67. He was found awash in the ultimate red.
Many of the incisive, head-spinning disquisitions in the drama come directly from Rothko’s writings and interviews. It’s all about life and art and human connection. It’s about how one solipsistic painter considers his creations as living, breathing creatures. “Do you think they’ll ever forgive me ?, ” he says, of leaving the murals in a bourgeois temple to the super-rich.
Alfred Molina, who played the role in London and New York, is in Los Angeles now, reprising his remarkable, tour de force performance. Jonathan Groff has stepped into the role of the fictional assistant, and he acquits himself well, if not stunningly.
In the studio, we watch the mixing of paint, the mounting and priming of canvases. But most important, we watch an artist contemplating his art, which is how Rothko starts and ends the piece.
“Let it pulsate,” he instructs Ken. Let it work on you. Lean into it. Engage with it.”
His advice applies to this marvelously thought-provoking play. Lean into it, and it’ll work its deep, dark magic on you.
“RED” runs through September 9, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
©2012 PAT LAUNER