“What do you see?”
With this question painter Mark Rothko, played by Joseph Graves, invited the audience into his Bowery studio Saturday evening at Syracuse Stage. He asked for their participation. Their time. He asked that they think.
Written by playwright John Logan and set between 1958 and 1960, Red chronicles Rothko’s attempt to outfit the New York Four Season’s newly erected walls with abstract murals. Young studio assistant/aspiring painter Ken, a mercurial Matthew Amendt, challenges his employer’s reasons behind accepting the commission. “I want to ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who eats there,” screams a livid Rothko after a lengthy philosophical back and forth with his pupil. Ken stares back unconvinced.
A two-man affair, Red relies solely on its dual leads and Graves and Amendt don’t disappoint. Graves captures Rothko beautifully, strutting about stage, adjusting furniture, smoking cigarettes, changing records and discussing the state of art as if it were mere small talk. He looks down upon the beatnik youth, commercialism, the developing pop art movement, and wasted contemporaries (“Why the f--- does Jackson Pollock own an Oldsmobile?”). His utter contempt for everything but his work is both amusing and pitiful in one stroke.
Antsy and sharp, Amendt lends Ken a strident multi-dimensionality. His youthful idealism and crass intellect make him a perfect foil to the cantankerous Rothko. Not to mention Ken has endured his fair share of personal suffering in the face of the painter’s grumbles of sorrow–- his parents were brutally murdered when he was seven.
As the intermission-less 90-minutes unravel, Rothko and Ken paint, bicker, and rearrange (there is a lot of furniture-moving) their way to self-realization. Can Ken create like Andy Warhol and labor like Pablo Picasso? Is Rothko really pandering to the capitalist bourgeoisie? The duo address all of these things and much more (Nietzsche anyone?).
William Bloodgood’s set is rustic and well detailed. Canvas racks dot the stage and a paint mixing table and a working sink fill-out the more functional aspects of the set. Red paint dust covers the pale stage floor and weathered skylights complete the studio feel.
Lighting designer Thomas C. Hase makes Rothko’s layered abstractions “pulsate” and sound man Jeremy J. Lee provides ample sonic support for the actors’ varied emotional states–– the aria during the painting scene was especially effective in heightening the intensity on stage.
During the closing minutes of Red, Ken and Rothko part ways, the master-painter encouraging his assistant to develop himself in the outside world, not in some cruddy studio. Art needs an audience and Rothko advises Kent to find one. Taking a drag from his cigarette and staring into the invisible painting that hangs in place of the audience, Rothko asks Ken the same question that began their relationship two years earlier. “What do you see?,” he asks. “Red,” replies Ken. When it’s all said and done, Red is definitely worth a view. A long, contemplative one.