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Red at the Mark Taper Forum

New Play Explores the Mind of Painter Mark Rothko


When you parse the insightful discussion of art and life that permeates the Tony Award-winning drama Red, the primary theme that emerges is one of balance.

We all contain both a Dionysian side (passion, instinct) and an Apollonian one (analytical ability, self-control). Painter Mark Rothko laments that he hasn’t mastered the art of harmonizing the two—of using his intellect and skill to give his raw emotions form, context, and a meaning that can be communicated to others.

Playwright John Logan’s implication is that most works of art—and, indeed, most lives—fail to find this elusive sweet spot. But his London and New York hit, which is having its Southern California premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, comes damn close.

Without question, it’s an intellectually stimulating work, one that asks big questions and provides nuanced, sometimes conflicting answers. But it’s also emotionally engaging as a portrait of internal struggle and self-doubt.

It’s a short, dense work, clocking it at just over 90 minutes. There are only two characters: Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina), the brilliant abstract expressionist, and Ken (Jonathan Groff), an aspiring artist who serves as his assistant, gofer and sounding board. The entire play takes place in Rothko’s studio; it alternates between highly charged verbal exchanges and wordless scenes of the men doing mundane tasks such as priming a canvas to classical music.

Ken at first mainly listens as Rothko lectures, but he gradually learns how to rebut the master quite convincingly, noting that his elevated notions of art conflict with his current commission—a series of paintings for the elegant new Four Seasons Restaurant. He asks a provocative but entirely reasonable question: if art is about a profound interaction between the object and the viewer, as Rothko insists, how can he decorate a diner?

To his credit, Rothko, who can be both pompous and sentimental, takes this criticism quite seriously. His answer becomes something of a defining moment for him, pointing the way toward the creation of the famous Rothko Chapel a few years later.

A few years after reaching that apotheosis of his career, Rothko committed suicide. “My biggest fear,” he tells Ken, surveying one of his massive black-and-red paintings, “is that the black will someday swallow the red.” For those who know his story, the statement is indescribably moving.

Molina created the role in London, reprising it in New York and, now, in Los Angeles (each time under the sure, subtle direction of Michael Grandage). It’s a privilege to watch him embody this conflicted, anguished genius, and to interact with the equally fine Groff (who is unrecognizable from his stint on Glee.)

The two men’s relationship is hard to pin down, for us and for them, which keeps it unusually interesting. Father-son? Mentor-student? Old master-young upstart? In the end, the dynamic is intense but elusive, much like the relationship between a viewer and a great work of art.

4•1•1

Red is at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles nightly except Mondays, plus Saturday and Sunday matinees, through Sept. 9. For tickets and information call (213) 628-2772 or visit CenterTheatreGroup.org/Red

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