BWW Reviews: RED Invokes a Conversation About Art
BWW Reviews: RED Invites a Conversation about Art
"What do you see?" Rothko asks his young assistant, Ken, on his first day of work. "Step closer. Closer. Too close, too close. Stand right there." Rothko maneuvers the young man to the ideal position to view his work, and then repeats the question. "What do you see?" Ken considers the painting for a moment, then answers honestly: "Red."
So begins a 90-minute conversation about art between the staunch, acerbic Rothko (Matt Gottlieb) and his fresh-faced assistant, Ken (Shaun Anthony). Rothko has accepted a commission to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant, an exclusive venue that Rothko considers more a temple of consumption than a posh eatery. The ethical struggle of the artist comes into focus as Rothko explains to Ken his feelings about art and his paintings, and how his work should function to elicit emotional experiences within the viewer. However, Rothko can't help but denigrate the consumerist culture that appreciates his work. "I've become a commodity," he grouses when he overhears a woman on the street talking about owning a "Rothko." As Ken points out, Rothko doesn't really think anyone is good enough, pure enough, or emotionally deep enough to view, much less own, his paintings. He fears they will become "over-mantles": pictures that serve as interior decoration instead of an art piece that awakens primal emotions. So why, then, is he so willing to paint massive murals for the Four Seasons hotel, that chapel of consumerism? These questions of the meaning, the purpose, and the function of art, as well as the sometime hypocrisy of the artistic profession, are on the block through this fast-paced, impeccably written show.
This conversation is smart, witty, and infused with metaphor. When all Ken can see is "red," Rothko delivers a feisty monologue about how "red" is not specific. It's a broad term for a color, not like mulberry or magenta; red has no imagination, red is too basic to be descriptive. To see art, Rothko believes, one must understand the color and all it represents, and "red" is a fairly elementary conclusion. Ken attempts to define his definition of "red," and the conversation devolves into a fast-paced exchange of both characters listing things that are red. The list starts simply, with typical objects, but as each character advances on the other, the volley becomes more purposefully and aggressive; they are no longer stating things that can be described as red, but stating things that red describes. Like looking at a painting that seems, at first glance, to be a black rectangle in a bed of red paint, the true meaning comes out through symbolism. The list of red objects is actually a list of objects that show how red can represent a state of mind. Nothing is simply "red"; things that are red can be frightening, savory, energizing, comforting, passionate. And so the audience's education begins. It's not about color, really, it's about the emotional meaning behind that color, what that color forces you to recognize within yourself. Rothko admits that he wants his murals, which he finds to be dark and disconcerting, to make everyone in the Four Seasons Restaurant lose their appetites. "It would be a compliment if they refused them," he tells Ken, then shrugs, almost sadly. "They won't."
Both Gottlieb and Anthony deliver impressive performances marked by consistent intensity throughout the show; Anthony brings an open, eager approach to the art world, and Rothko is brusque and impatient, imparting annoyed resentment at the knowledge that his time of artistic consequence is winding down as be grows old and his work is overshadowed by the new works of the pop-artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein. The emotional range of both performers was understated yet authentic. The characters never find common ground about the direction of art, but each offers a necessary, opposing point of view to the other to keep that conversation in balance.
Stage design complemented the show well. Set in Rothko's studio, the stage was full of rectangle-shapes: the windows; the canvases; the tables; the paintings hanging on the walls. There were always several paintings in the studio, one that the audience could see up stage center, and three that hung on the fourth wall barrier between Rothko's studio and the audience. Whenever the two characters examined and discussed the murals on the fourth wall, they looked out boldly into the house. Some of the most interesting moments took place during these scenes: Rothko discusses how he dislikes the idea of people owning his paintings because he doesn't think they should be treated as a commodity for social status. It's an interesting opinion to express to a Santa Barbara audience-just the type of people who might actually own a Rothko painting and hang it as an "over-mantle" in their Montecito homes.
Red was a very impressive, intellectually stimulating show that created a passionate discussion about the meaning of art and the way it affects both the viewer and the creator. The writing provided a playground of biting sarcasm and elitism for Gottlieb's acerbic-yet-vulnerable Rothko, and a full emotional arc for Anthony, who grows so exasperated by Rothko's attitude that he finally accuses him of hypocrisy and negativity. Anthony walks into Rothko's studio as an eager assistant searching for truth and validation, but ends up discovering, in frustration, that his presence has had no effect on Rothko. He's wrong; his new energy brought life into the tomb of paint and perfection from which Rothko refused to emerge. Director Brian Shnipper presents an intellectually stimulating, artistically enlightening show that gives two very good actors some room to sink into their characters. This is the type of play that is easy to get excited about: smart writing, specific physicality, and actors who bring vulnerable believability to their characters creates for a delectable offering from Ensemble.