The Tony Award-winning play by John Logan is at Seattle Rep through March 24, 2012.

Share story


There is the set. The acting. The play. Seattle Repertory Theatre’s local debut of the Tony Award-honored, ubiquitous John Logan drama “Red,” about seminal abstract painter Mark Rothko, relies on all three for impact.

But the first two elements in Richard E.T. White’s thoughtful Rep staging are the most compelling.

Kent Dorsey’s splendid set depicts Rothko’s New York studio in the late 1950s. The industrial lamps, clutter of brushes and paints, stained floor — Dorsey makes it all so real, you can almost smell the turpentine, the canvas, the sweat.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Actors Denis Arndt as Rothko and Connor Toms as his (fictional) assistant Ken interact convincingly with this environment.

They are a generation apart, often butting heads. But they become a working team before us, toiling on huge, color-saturated paintings in Rothko’s “Red” series.

Their rush to apply an undercoat of fast-drying rust-colored paint to a canvas is a dramatic high point here. (Really.)

Logan’s script delves into issues of real concern to artists: “pure art” vs. commercial/decorative art. The old guard being usurped by the new. The role of intellect and spirit in creating and viewing art.

But without a more developed relationship as its own undercoat, “Red” boils down to an aesthetic debate/ rivalry that seesaws between the scintillating and pretentious, the authentic (Rothko’s own words are often quoted) and contrived.

As Ken first enters the studio, he’s a nervous young painter, thrilled to be the master’s new assistant. But no warm, fuzzy bonding ensues. Arndt’s treacherous, belligerent Rothko hectors and manipulates. And he brands Ken (and much of humanity) as unfit to gaze upon his genius. The kid hasn’t even read Nietzsche!

He also incessantly sounds off on what art should and shouldn’t be, often in clichés: “I am here to stop your heart. I am here to make you think … I am not here to make pretty pictures.”

Ken goes home and reads Nietzsche, all right, and soon is expounding on the Dionysian and Apollonian tensions in Rothko’s work.

Some of the Art with a capital “A” jousting here is stimulating stuff. Some of it sounds like showoff blather from an art-school bull session. Yes, Rothko’s arrogance, boorishness and depressiveness were well documented traits, and are well-realized in Arndt’s portrayal.

Yet it’s the nonverbal things that create the most dramatic tension. Brendan Patrick Hogan’s sound score is a savvy mélange of bebop and Beethoven. And best of all, the 90-minute one-act shows us Rothko’s radiant blocks of color taking shape over time. The Rothko-esque, beautifully lit (by Robert Peterson) paintings seem to float and beckon the more you stare at them.

White and his cast give the Ken-Rothko dynamic more juice than the Broadway version did, by making one less insecure and the other a bit less of a barking tyrant.

Arndt, a master of nuance, doesn’t need to bellow to bully. He can convey inner torment with a slump of shoulders, a swig of Scotch, a haunted gaze. An alert Toms goes toe to toe with him. But apart from a sudden confession of a traumatic childhood incident, Ken is mostly reactive.

As “Red” foreshadows, the real Rothko was indeed suicidal. (If art failed him in the end, so did poor mental and physical health). But unlike in the play, the painter demurred from analyzing the effect of his work on others.

“A painting doesn’t need anybody to explain what it is about,” he once said. “If it is any good, it speaks for itself.”

Portland Art Museum is currently presenting a Mark Rothko retrospective. (He was born in Russia, but spent much of his youth in Portland). The exhibit runs through May 27.

Misha Berson:

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.