Red By John Logan
Directed by Patrick Flick
Starring Buddy Haardt and John Herrera
Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, Orlando FL
At the pinnacle of his career, Mark Rothko (Herrera) retreats to his dark studio to contemplate himself as if he were his own mandala. With a big commission in hand from the sort of evil people who can afford his art, he takes on an assistant “Ken.”(Haardt) While he clearly states the job requirements (sweep floors, clean paint brushes, some light scullery duty) one thing is very clear – Ken is NOT doing art. Fair enough. The boy has aspirations but needs to apprentice, Rothko is lonely and needs to talk. And talk he does, burying us under his philosophy about art, life and art collectors. Per Rothko, to make great art you must understand color theory and religion and read Nietzsche and Jung and have the ability to stare for days at you own work and despise anyone who buys, exhibits or collects it. Make no mistake; it takes more effort than you could image to make a wall size painting consisting of two rectangles of nearly solid color. Rothko’s explanation draws attention both inside and outside the theatre. People in a completely different show across the hall complained: “They keep yelling ‘Red’ in there. What’s going on? Are they fighting?”
What going on is one of the strongest shows in this season’s Shakespeare schedule. Herrera’s bull faced artist isn’t just loud, he’s opinionated and since he’s paid the big bucks, his opinions count for a lot. It’s true he’s full of hot air, pretense, contradiction and self delusion and Ken throws it all back in his face. This promising apprentice begins with a vague desire “to paint” and learns everything but brush technique from Rothko – self promotion, shouting down the opposition, and the fine points of becoming a color Nazi. In a telling scene, he brings in a painting to show the master, but it never gets unwrapped. That’s really the point: what you paint is pretty much unimportant as long as you can sell yourself.
You can’t talk about this show without talking about light. Rothko hates the light of the sun, plein air painting gives him hives and he can’t deal with the ants getting in the gesso. Rothko rightly demands that his work stay in dim light and lighting director Eric Haugen obliges. An early painting glimmers in mysterious red on black looking like a ghost or a tree but when the harsh work lights come up; their fluorescence washes away the mystery, leaving ugly streaks of mismatched colors. But switch back to some dimmed gels and the mystery returns. Art is all about the show, whether it only runs four weekends or if it hangs in a gallery for decades until it falls out of fashion.
Painting has never recovered from the introduction of photography which completely solved the problem of “making it look real.” With reality conquered, unreality was the final frontier and the art of oil and tempera drifted from symbolic realism into the deserts of abstract expressionism, color field, and pop art. The results have been fun and sparked endless arguments fought with cheese cubes and cheap white wine at gallery openings but art as Rothko defined is as transient as a hair style or a pop band. Rothko ranked himself with Turner and Rembrandt and maybe he’ll get his wings someday, but Google his pictures today and maybe you’ll think what I did: “How quaint!”
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