Classical music plays as Mark Rothko stands in the middle of the stage smoking a cigarette. The painting studio set behind him features a few completed paintings, a few blank canvases and boarded up windows. Rothko sees none if it: He’s staring out at the audience. His young new assistant Ken enters and Rothko demands, “What do you see? Wait. Stand closer.” Ken inches towards the end of the stage, and we realize they’re not looking at the audience; they’re looking at Rothko’s art hanging on the (fourth) wall. Ken contemplates, then finally says, “Red.” This is the name of the show the audience is here to see—John Logan’s play about the famous abstract expressionist painter, his commission to create murals for the Four Seasons restaurant and his assistant’s response to this act of commercialization.
The opening of “Red” at Geva Theatre Center, the second show of their season, sets up a blurred line between life and art that permeates the play. Director Skip Greer (who also teaches a course in directing at UR) bridges the gap between life and art with tiny moments of realism onstage. Throughout the play, Rothko’s cigarette produces real smoke. Audience members in the first few rows can smell the paint he pours from one container to another. He cracks real eggs and throws away the shells. In one particularly intoxicating moment, Rothko and Ken set up a huge blank canvas and, with gorgeous synchronization and fervent energy, cover the entire white square with red strokes. It stays in the background and the audience gets to watch the paint dry as the characters discuss how dried red paint looks like blood.
This moment is particularly satisfying because the audience gets to experience the visceral thrill of watching paint cover a canvas after hearing Rothko philosophize vaguely about art. For Rothko, painting is about capturing raw emotion—what people really mean when they say they’re fine. “How are you feeling? Conflicted. Nuanced. Troubled… I am not fine. We are not fine.” He points to the audience, which the characters see as his paintings: “Look at these pictures…. Not nice. Not fine. Real.”
Rothko breaking the fourth wall without realizing there are people behind it returns at a later moment in the show. We learn that he paints because he’s afraid of oblivion and pain—“the black swallowing the red.” Even though art is about expressing and sharing universal human conditions, Rothko thinks he is the only person in the world who can feel his pain and convey it through art. Ken accuses him of not thinking anyone is good enough to look at his art. Actor John Ford-Dunker induces chills when he declares, “I don’t think you’d recognize a real human being if he were standing in front of you,” and the two stand looking at each other in a gloriously tense moment.
Unfortunately, the show is not always enthralling and breathless. Rothko talks. A lot. And, while Stephen Caffrey embodies the intimidating and self-absorbed genius perfectly, at times his self-indulgent chatter can feel tedious and pretentious. However, the rewards of the play far outweigh any moments of alienation. The audience has suffered through Rothko’s elitism and arrogance through the first part of the play, making Ken’s explosive condemnations of Rothko in the second half all the more satisfying.
In the final scene, Rothko stands under a red light that gets swallowed by the black. Immediately, lights appear on his red and black painting and the actors come out for their bows. Shortly before this, Ken tells Rothko of his commission: “It’s just painting.” The same could potentially be said for their story: “It’s just a play.” However, Red transcends being “just” anything, capturing the angst and awe of people trying to create a piece of art, forging a connection with another human or figuring out how to live in a bloodstained world.
Varga is a Take Five Scholar.