Big Man on Canvas: The Rep opens its theater season with a portrait of Mark Rothko

Sep 15, 2011 at 4:00 am

"Let it embrace you," the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko passionately implores his young apprentice, who is gazing upon a Rothko mural for the first time. "Let the picture do its work, but work with it." The same helpful advice applies to John Logan's sensual play Red, with which the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis opens its season. Red allows us to observe Rothko in his Manhattan studio during two years in the late 1950s as he prepared his first series of murals. Playgoers who are willing to tolerate the many contradictory moods of Rothko — opinionated and philosophical but also garrulous, self-indulgent and vain — are likely to leave the theater feeling that they have been exposed to a singular mind.

Painters often have been depicted on stage and screen, with splotchy results. In a movie like Ed Harris' Pollock (2000), the camera could become the brush, and the viewer could replicate the act of painting. This cannot be done on the dialogue-driven stage. There is, however, one sequence in Red when Rothko and his assistant prime a canvas. Although Rothko already has admonished us that priming is not to be misconstrued as painting, this is our closest approximation to witnessing the artist-at-work, and it's a heady experience. In fact Red fascinates whenever the process of painting is being revealed. But for the most part, we get Rothko between brushstrokes, when he's spewing his opinions on just about everything, especially the education of an artist.

As Rothko, Brian Dykstra has a ball trying to mesmerize the audience despite his character's excesses. For 90 intermissionless minutes, Dykstra boldly strides around his universe — but he also sits boldly. When Dykstra is still, his body is as charged as it is when he is on parade. At evening's end on opening night, Dykstra began the curtain call with a shrug, as if to say, "That's all there is, folks. What did you make of it?" It was his only self-effacing gesture all night.

Yet this is not solely Dykstra's Rothko; it is also John Logan's. Prior to Red, Logan was better known as a screenwriter than as a playwright. Many of his scripts — Gladiator, The Last Samurai, Any Given Sunday — are set on fields of battle. But his protagonists are almost always thoughtful combatants who spend as much time philosophizing as they do fighting. True to form, Red plays out in a former gymnasium. Rothko shares both the pomposity and the icy misanthropy of Orson Welles, the central figure in Logan's movie RKO 281, an account of the making of Citizen Kane. But whereas Welles had an equally powerful antagonist in newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Rothko has no such adversary in Red. He is both protagonist and antagonist, a narcissistic chameleon. Logan has created an apprentice named Ken (Matthew Carlson) and even given him a compelling back-story, but Ken is no match for Rothko. (In the scene when Ken reveals his disturbing past, Rothko is a more commanding presence listening than Ken is talking.)

And yet, despite the grandiosity of its protagonist, by evening's end Red has imploded. And it turns out the villain isn't any of the enemies Rothko has attacked early on — not rival painters or callous gallery owners or insensitive critics. No, the black hat belongs to...the Four Seasons restaurant, where Rothko's murals are to hang. Early in the evening, the painter notes that when Caravaggio received a commission, he was obligated to paint it; he had no choice. Rothko had a choice — to hang, or not to hang — which he exercised. Where is the drama in that? Why should we care? Does he?

Because Red builds to nothing, it is to be enjoyed more for its journey than its destination. Director (and Rep artistic director) Steven Woolf and his staff have seen to it that the journey is flashy and engaging. People who respond to plays about smothering egoists (Terrence McNally's Master Class is another example from this genre) should find Red at all times diverting. But it may be that Red's most helpful contribution to the Rep's season is to prepare the way for Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George in January. I think we'll find that Sondheim's Georges Seurat and Logan's Mark Rothko are kindred spirits.