What is art for, and what is the nature of the artistic impulse? These questions central to “Red,” the multiple Tony Award-winning play by John Logan currently on offer at The Kalamazoo Civic’s Parish Theatre.
Mark Rothko, one of the 20th Century’s most celebrated American abstract impressionist painters, and his young studio assistant, Ken, are the only two characters in this play that takes place within the confines of Rothko’s New York City studio in the late 1950’s — shortly after Rothko has been commissioned to create murals for the Four Seasons hotel restaurant. It unfolds as a dialectic between two artists in very different moments of their lives and careers.
“What do you see?” is the phrase that both opens and closes this 90-minute drama. Rothko peers into the audience — ostensibly looking at his own work — as he utters the question with intensity. It’s an ironic utterance on several levels, for Rothko isn’t actually interested in what anyone else sees, and in this production there isn’t much to look at.
It’s not that the design elements aren’t strong. In fact, AnneMarie Miller’s lights beautifully highlight the major themes of the play — always fading to red before going to black, there’s a visual representation of Rothko’s fear of death and insignificance, his declaration that his only fear is that “one day the black will swallow the red.” And the patterns of light that dance on the paint-speckled floor of David Kyhn’s set create the illusion of movement about which Rothko pontificates and references as a lesson from Picasso.
But the greatest movement in this production of this very cerebral play is intellectual. As Rothko and Ken wend their way through theories of aesthetics, the relationship between art and commerce, how myth plays out in art, and the influence of Nietzsche, particularly his “The Birth of Tragedy,” on Rothko’s work, the action and movement is all “thinky, talky,” as Rothko describes the community of Jews among whom he grew up. And unfortunately, the show never breaks through to the heart, or elicits much of a response to Rothko’s second repeated question throughout the play: “What do you feel?”
Directed by Stephen Carver, Dan Coyne as Rothko and Jack Reed as Ken offer a palpable counterpoint to one another. Coyne captures Rothko’s intensity and pretentiousness, and fully embodies Ken’s declaration that he is a “solipsistic bully” and a “titanic self absorption of a man.” However, he affects a peculiar Transatlantic accent and often speaks in the upper register of his voice, and both tendencies grow nearly as tiresome as the character he plays.
Reed provides vocal realness and grounding, though emotionally remains on the surface, particularly in the revelation of his own tragedy, what Rothko asserts defines each of us. Despite needing stronger direction, Coyne and Reed do manage to create genuine moments of connection and drama amid the Socratic exchange of dialogue.
Though “Red” is a smart script with poignant little moments of humor and effectively raises worthwhile questions while offering a peek into the intensity of an artist’s mind, this production falls short of doing what Rothko himself argues art, ultimately, should do: move people to feel something.
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre