by Carol Rocamora
He’s arrogant. Rude. Opinionated. Aggressive. (Shall I go on?) Competitive. Paranoid. Egocentric. Overbearing. All in all, he’s thoroughly, obnoxious.
So why would you want to spend 90 minutes with him?
Because he’s Mark Rothko, that’s why, the renowned abstract expressionist who challenged the public with his unique paintings and revolutionized modern art in the 20th century. And thanks to Alfred Molina, the fine British actor, he’s brought to vibrant life in the most unforgettable way.
Red, John Logan’s clever 2009 bio-play about this eccentric giant of the painting world, can now, thankfully, be seen again, live-streaming on pbs.org through May 27 (link below). The play focuses on two years of Rothko’s life (1958-1959), during which he worked on a commission to paint a series of murals for the posh Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. To execute this assignment (which will earn him a fat $35,000), he engages Ken, a fledgling young artist, as his assistant. Ken’s job? To make the frames, stretch and prime the canvases, and help apply the base color– red. After that, it’s up to Rothko.
During five swift scenes, as they work together, we get to know both men (mostly Rothko), with Ken as his foil as well as reluctant captive audience. Rothko pontificates on art, lecturing to Ken: “Let the picture pulsate…Let it work on you… Let it spread out, let it embrace you… Work with it….” He describes his process: “Paintings are vulnerable. I’m trying to do something different… Most of painting is thinking.” He rails against other successful modern artists, including Picasso, Pollack, and Warhol.
Ken bears the lecturing and verbal abuse as best he can. Pent up with frustration, he finally challenges Rothko for his “titantic self-absorption, grandiose self-importance, and pretention. I can’t imagine any one in the history of art ever tried to be ‘significant’,” Ken blurts out. “Sometime you just want a still life or a soup can or a comic book!” Ken invokes Van Gogh, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Willem de Kooning, admiring them for their “life force.” Ken goes on to challenges Rothko for creating serious works of art for a commercial venue like The Four Seasons restaurant.
“I hope to ruin the appetites of everyone who chooses to eat there,” retorts Rothko. But that’s not good enough for Ken. The disciple ultimately provokes his mentor to face his hypocrisy and make an unexpected decision.
But the most arresting moment of the play comes in scene three, when they slather red paint over a canvas together, and a Rothko painting comes to pulsating life. It’s rare moment when art fuses with theatre right before our eyes. And it’s a triumphant, celebratory moment. “My fear – that one day the black will swallow the red,” he confesses to Ken about the colors that mean death and life to him.
As Rothko, Alfred Molina gives a charismatic performance that I’ll conjure up every time I see one of this artist’s cryptic, hypnotic paintings. As Ken, his assistant, Alfred Enoch’s performance is reticent at first (as written), but soon explodes with a commendable force, as the young artist finds the courage to challenge his mentor. The chemistry between the two actors is moving (what a sweet coincidence that both actors are named “Alfred).
Red originally premiered in London at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009, starring Molina and Eddie Redmayne. Thereafter, the play transferred to Broadway in March 2010, where it received the Tony Award for Best Play. Subsequently, there have been other new two-character plays on Broadway featuring a mentor and disciple, both favorably received – Donald Margulies’s Collected Stories in 2010 and Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside in 2019. It’s a solid dramatic genre, and it works.
“What do you see?” Rothko’s probing question frames the evening, as he challenges Ken to look at his work. Meanwhile, I can tell you what we see, thanks to PBS – a thought-provoking, visual-provoking and ultimately moving play.
Red, by John Logan, directed by Michael Grandage, now streaming on until May 27