John Logan's Tony-award-winning Red, playing at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre until March 4, mines American abstract painter Mark Rothko's austere aesthetics, which the wretched Russian emigre explained to art critic Harold Rosenberg. “I don’t express myself in my paintings; I express my not-self.” (Read the whole play before or after you see it — http://www.scribd.com/doc/49055081/John-Logan-Red)
Most theatregoers won't be drawn to a play that feels more like a philosophy lecture than a human drama, and Logan has crafted a play that swirls about in the heady world of hard ideas, but is, at its core, the story of a despairing man who felt misunderstood, and whose ambition seemed to be to find even one person who could appreciate his artistic aim. Rothko was a grim idealist. Logan deliberately doesn't mention that Rothko had a second wife and a daughter in 1958, when he got the Four Seasons commission, the fulcrum for the play. Trivial matters like domestic relations couldn't have a place in Logan's project.
Logan shows us a Rothko who was conflicted in the desire to be properly recognized without being appropriated by the art buying public who saw art as over-the-mantel decoration and commercial investment. Rothko was known to greet fellow artists sarcastically with the question, "How's business?" (When Rothko killed himself 42 years ago this coming Saturday, he left behind 800 unsold paintings. In 2007, a Rothko sold for $73 million.)
A highlight of Logan's script is a fine Rothko diatribe on human superficiality of the sort that allows most of us to evade the demons that call some to oblivion before their time. Logan's Rothko is an Old Testament judge, indicting the masses for their despicable mediocrity and philistinism. He rails against inauthenticity. He ultimately condemns the very audience that comes to hear him speak in the theatre. Everything is absolutely not fine, thank you very much.
So why would you want to spend 90 minutes listening to a fuming alcoholic, devoid of empathy, self-absorbed and generally personally offensive?
Thank the writer and his conduit, actor Jim Mezon (Rothko) and newcomer David Coomber (Rothko's much put-upon gofer Ken). Logan's script rises above philosophical monologue because he reveals the humanity of the flawed Mark Rothko in the artist's element, a studio setting (David Boechler) where opera arias comfort the tortured painter and real art gets done. The scene in which Rothko and Ken frenetically lay a maroon primer onto a large canvas with house painting brushes reminds the audience that the ideas get their life from physical work. Rothko's ethereal vision of colour as a route to an ineffable metaphysics is the product of Johnny Walker Red and paint, real things that were never good enough for him, but helped make him who he was.
Logan kind of redeems Rothko in the end, but it's no happy ending.
Red is a terrific exploration in the world of ideas and art, but it is grounded in totally understandable human agony. The question of whether a child could paint a Rothko is beside the point. Rothko's originality is in his work, but the work is an imperfect reflection of the striving man, the foundation of good drama.
One audience member was determined to make her afternoon a pleasure. Certainly Logan's play has a dose of acerbic Rothko wit, but Red is no comedy. In fact, Rothko's relentless message is that all true humans must acknowledge the tragedy relived interminably. Red is no barrel of laughs, and that's just fine.