“What do you see?” asks painter Mark Rothko, facing the audience, in Red.
Rarely in theatre is a question more to the heart of the matter, unless it is “To be, or not to be,” and that doesn’t occur until almost half-way through Hamlet. Red’s opening “What do you see?” is asked not just of the characters, but of the audience, the actors, and the director. It is a question that should continually confront and puzzle the will of both the questioner and those questioned.
Unfortunately, the question is underwhelming in Capital Repertory Theatre’s current production.
Red deserved its 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, its Olivier Awards, the glowing reviews in London and New York, its many productions the past two seasons across the regional stages. Done well, Red is not just a didactic dissertation on art appreciation, or on the value of the well-read soul, or a biography of an influential postwar artist. Done well, Red plumbs the messy, antithetical qualities of the creative spark that makes mankind humane. This two-character masterwork, written by versatile writer John Logan, is also a great read on the page.
Red uses events of Mark Rothko’s life in 1950s New York, most prominently a then-astronomical $35,000 commission for four murals for the soon-to-be-open Four Seasons restaurant for the uber-wealthy. The play confronts and strokes: “Of course you like it—how can you not like it?! Everyone likes everything nowadays. . . . Everything becomes everything else and it’s all nice and pretty and likable,” Rothko (Kevin McGuire) says in the first scene when his assistant, Ken (David Kenner), gives a polite, banal response to the opening question. That this painting, one of the Four Seasons murals, is seen only through the imagination on the “fourth wall” of the audience, gives Red a thematic through line.
“There’s tragedy in every brush stroke,” Rothko tells Ken soon after hiring him; when Ken undercuts the pomposity with an “ah” in response, Rothko’s “Swell. Let’s have a drink” begins a pas de deux that alternatingly lurches, leaps, pirouettes, and stomps in Logan’s play.
Rothko begins teaching Ken: “Movement is life . . . to live is to move. Without movement paintings are what?” Ken replies, learning: “Dead?”
On the page, Red is filled with soaring, challenging scenes, full of Logan’s repeated directions that action should be done “messily,” be it eating, painting, drinking, creating. Logan’s Red uses lighting to show how Rothko’s paintings aren’t static, but move—and they depend on an audience. “They need the viewer. They’re not like representational pictures.”
Capital Repertory Theatre’s artistic director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill presents a Red that is a clean, well-lighted place: likeable, neat, nice. There’s no mess and no fuss here. McGuire is brilliant yet again at performing as the star above the play; he shows the egoist in Rothko naturally, capturing the contradiction in an “artist” pursuing commercial success by pandering to corporate interests. (The Four Seasons commission is from the Seagram’s, and the four Rothko murals define conspicuous consumption.) It’s a subtle piece of casting as one of Red’s main themes is commerce versus art: Is Rothko a hypocrite for taking a commission for murals to shown in an upscale restaurant? Does an artist follow his muse or chase after the corporate money? Is a rich artist a fraud? Kenner captures the callowness and pleasantness of Ken, but like the small, neatly wrapped painting Ken carries but never reveals, Kenner never delivers the full package. It is a pleasant, puce production, but there are so many more colors in Logan’s Red.