Park Square Theatre (a Knight Arts grantee) has opened its new season with John Logan’s 2010 Tony Award-winning play, “Red.” The story takes place in 1958, inside the close quarters of painter Mark Rothko’s Bronx studio. By this point, the abstract expressionist has come into his own: respected if not rich, in late middle age, Rothko is sufficiently famous to “have become a noun,” as his character puts it.
Played by J. C. Cutler, Rothko is brooding, difficult and intellectually formidable, a brilliant artist, but a troubled one, dogged by depression. He’s cautious, methodical, restrained, workman-like; he treats his studio time like a job, working five days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In this playwright’s telling, Rothko is an expressly Apollonian figure among the “new American painters,” a counterbalance to the debauched excesses and Dionysian extravagance of another towering abstract expressionist of the day, Jackson Pollock.
When the play opens, Rothko is working on the biggest commission of his career – a series of large-scale murals for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant in midtown Manhattan’s prestigious Seagram building. To help him, he’s just hired a young assistant, Ken, an aspiring painter in his own right, played by Park Square-newcomer, Steven Lee Johnson.
The byplay between the two artists, elder and younger, is central; big ideas-conversations are primary here, rather than nuances of plot or character. Their exchanges are cerebral and heated and self-consciously significant – to do with art and philosophy, authenticity and selling out, and what it means to be human and really alive. During a particularly intense exchange between Rothko and his young assistant, the elder says, “I’m here to stop your heart and make you think; I’m not here to make pretty pictures.”
“Red” renders the great figures of 20th-century art in distinctly human terms, tracing the lineage from Cubism to the European Surrealists and “new American” Abstract Expressionists to the Pop Art upstarts of the 1960s. Logan’s script effectively takes the story of those creative evolutions beyond art historical facts and dates, or pictures on museum walls, to seeing this art as something people made.
The accessible narrative treatment of these iconic cultural figures invites consideration of their art, not as investment or decoration or commodity, but as human work – the labor of a lifetime, worthy of sweat, tears and sometimes blood.
“Red” is on stage through October 7 at Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul; 651-291-7005; www.parksquaretheatre.org.