"Red," John Logan's fictional treatment of painter Mark Rothko's famous commission for the Seagram building in New York, is being given an intense production at SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston, under David R. Gammons' expert direction. It is a play that reveals the life of a troubled artist who saw himself on par with Turner, Titian, Michelangelo, and Matisse, who was living at a time of seismic changes when Americans would soon seek to canonize new artistic masters.
The production is remarkable for the supurb performances by Thomas Derrah and Karl Baker Olson as artist and assistant. It is also remarkable for making those seismic changes understandable, and for helping us to understand how Mark Rothko, who escaped anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia as a youngster, and who lived through Nazism in World War II, was stirred anew with paranoia as his adopted country again prepared for portentous global conflicts a year before the Cuban missile crisis.
When the play opens in circa 1958 at Rothko's studio in New York's Bowery district, we meet the egotistical painter (Thomas Derrah) -- owlish, portly, and overbearing - who beckons a nattily-attired Ken (Karl Baker Olson) into his lair as if no other place existed beyond its dingy walls.
"What do you see?" he asks the younger man. He soon makes it clear that he doesn’t care, that Ken is only there to work for him "as an employee," from 9 to 5, and is expected to perform menial tasks -- fetching Chinese take-out, stretching canvases on wooden frames - to earn his meager wages.
As the play unfolds, Rothko grows intensely interested - titillated to the point of revulsion -- in his young assistant’s observations and news of the changing world beyond the studio’s walls. At first Ken shares only smidgens, and then a torrent, of impressions of art shows he has attended uptown, and he pulls Rothko into listening to descriptions of the scintillating work of Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Rothko admits he is "a dinosaur", and dismisses these reports, stubbornly clinging to his theories of art and his inflated view of himself as standing in lineage with the old masters.
The painter and his assistant also connect on a deeply emotional level as the play progresses, and both reveal they are victims of violent crimes. Rothko admits to remembering - he’s not sure if he saw or heard about it - murderous attacks on Jews by Cossacks in Russia that precipitated his family’s exodus. And Ken shares a memory - recalled in shadows - of the massacre of his parents by burglars. The difference is that Rothko cannot escape these demons of his past, while Ken, representing a new optimism, insists on moving past them.
As Rothko, Thomas Derrah, who performs with similar prowess he demonstrated in his role as R. Buckminster Fuller in a production at A.R.T. last year, eerily channels Rothko as a moody, tortured soul. In real life, Rothko was a loudmouthed bully. There are scenes when Rothko punishes his assistant physically and psychically, assaulting him with verbal abuse as well as paint, his fists, and his palms. These scenes are truly shattering.
But there is something missing from Derrah’s performance: a certain nuance that more effectively conveys Rothko’s tortured Jewish identity. This is difficult to accomplish, yet it is central to understanding Rothko’s character. Despite the fact that he Americanized his name from Marcus Rothkowitz to Mark Rothko, the painter did not completely shed his ethnic skin. It was in his DNA. He struggled with this duality, and remained a frightened, unassimilated immigrant Jew who distrusted the American Establishment (despite their lucrative overtures of cash and commissions). And it is the reason why he deliberately chose to paint massive red canvases that one critic said resembled exposed and pulsating body parts. His unresolved terrors ultimately contributed to his decline into alcoholism, depression, and, later, suicide.
As Ken, Karl Baker Olson admirably puts up with Rothko’s abuse for two years over the course of the play with nary a sign of weariness. It is through his understated performance that we are able to calibrate the degrees to which the world is changing outside those dismal studio walls.
Kudos goes out to Christina Todesco for her imaginative scenic design and to Jeff Adelberg for his evocative lighting design. Director David R. Gammons is to be lauded: he has staged Logan’s challenging script with clarity and freshness, and he takes us on a red-blooded journey into the very heartbeat of Rothko’s flawed genius.
"Red," by John Logan, directed by David R. Gammons, runs through Feb. 4th at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Tremont St., South End, Boston. For ticket information, visit the SpeakEasy website.