Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
April 11, 2014
In his early years, abstract expressionist Mark Rothko painted in bright, vibrant colors. But as he got older, his work became darker and more brooding; in 1970, he committed suicide, at age 67.
But in “RED,” the 2010 multi-Tony Award-winning play by John Logan, the Russian-born Rothko is at his peak. He’s also at a crossroads. It’s 1958, and he’s just received a massive commission – to paint a series of murals for the upscale Four Seasons restaurant in New York. His new assistant, a budding painter himself, calls his fiercely principled employer a hypocrite, selling out to crass commercialism. The irascible, uncompromising Rothko rails at him, and at the young bucks coming up in the art world – Warhol, Stella, Rauschenberg. Most of all, he fears his own irrelevance, and he’s terrified that his assistant may be right.
Rothko’s words in the play come directly from the master’s writings and interviews. He was pedantic and dogmatic, but in 90 minutes, he teaches us a great deal about art and his creative process (“there’s tragedy in every brushstroke,” he says). And though he insists that he won’t be “rabbi, father, shrink, friend, or teacher” to his fatherless assistant, he becomes all of these, and more.
The San Diego Repertory Theatre production, deftly helmed by guest director Michael Arabian, is a beautiful thing to behold. Washed in red and bathed in evocative sound, the spacious studio vibrates with energy.
As the fictional assistant, Jason Maddy gives the performance of his career. Awestruck at first, he then competes with the tortured genius in a highly-charged canvas-priming scene that, sadly, lacks the show-stopping sexual tension of the original production. As Rothko, John Vickery is a powerful, aggressive presence. He towers, he fulminates, and ultimately, he moves us, forcing us to look at the monumental work in terms of darkness and light, black and red. The paintings pulsate… and if you let it color your thinking, the play does, too.
“RED” runs through April 27, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.
©2014 PAT LAUNER