Now that I’m ABD, maybe my thoughts on theatre will have a little more value. Or maybe not. Either way, it seemed like a good time to bring back nobody’s favorite feature, Flip the Script Friday. I was planning to finish one of the (many) unfinished posts, but I ended up pulling Red by John Logan off the shelf, and as it turns out, like most plays, it just feels right for this day, this week, this whole situation.
Red premiered at Donmar Warehouse in London on 3 December 2009.
- Mark Rothko – The painter, in his fifties. Originally portrayed by Alfred Molina.
- Ken – Also a painter, Rothko’s assistant, in his twenties. Originally portrayed by Eddie Redmayne (no pun intended).
1958-1959, Rothko’s studio in the Bowery, NYC. Aspiring painter Ken becomes the assistant to painter Mark Rothko, who has been commissioned to provide artwork for a new Four Seasons restaurant. Rothko challenges Ken to reconceptualize what art is, and Ken serves it right back to him in a showdown of words.
Initially, I wasn’t impressed. It just seemed like one long monologue by Rothko with a few interjections by Ken. The later scenes really evolve into a sort of questioning pattern that makes you understand more of just who Rothko is, what makes him Rothko, and similar ideas about other artists of his time. Pretty much everything about Ken is arbitrary, just as Rothko seems to think Ken is, until he outwits the artist in his own game. For a play that is all about one color, even in the title, there are certainly many shades of it.
It’s all about opposites in this play. Old/young, black/white (or in this case, black/red), abstract/realistic, expressionism/pop culture, high art/low art, art for the sake of art/culinary “overmantle” art. I found my allegiance constantly switching between the two characters. Rothko stands for a generation affected by two World Wars; for Ken, WWII was a part of his childhood, plus, he has more to worry about in his own life, which leads to another opposite: inside/outside. Rothko is the master of his own domain; in his studio, he can control the light, the sound, and the color; in the outside world, he can’t, which is why, in an almost absurdist sense, he can’t handle the outside world. Unlike Endgame, both characters do leave the studio, but when Rothko returns after seeing his work in the restaurant, he decides that he cannot handle it and goes to almost drastic measures before acknowledging that Ken belongs in the outside world, and the studio space which he values so much is too precious to him, and is enough of a world for him to not need what lies beyond its walls.
Fifty Shades of Red
Obviously, red, being the title of this play and a staple of the real Rothko’s work, is present in a big way, but it becomes a point of contention towards the beginning that unleashes Rothko’s crazy to its fullest extent. As Rothko muses on the primed canvas, searching for a color, Ken makes the mistake of suggesting “red,” and all hell breaks loose. Rothko goes on a rampage, dissecting the word and the concept of red until it loses all its meaning, and then regains it. The fuming Rothko sees in scarlet, crimson, maroon – anything but the passive, pedestrian “red.” He and Ken then battle over what red actually means, from apples to the Russian flag to stop signs to Satan. Wrestling with this concept of color, as seen through two very different sets of eyes, sends me thinking about that great monologue in The Devil Wears Prada, where Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly horns in on Anne Hathaway about the importance of having a specific shade of blue.
In a way, Rothko is Miranda Priestly, in a kind of screwed-up, chain-smoking, postwar painter kind of way.
How I’d Flip It
Paint the set blue! Just kidding. There are so many possibilities for set and lighting choices. It could be as simple as an empty room, or some sort of wall mosaic of canvases. Either way, I’d make the entrance/exit look very stark, especially when entrances and exits are made, with some flash of light or something. I can’t think too much about this play for too long, because I’m getting a headache. Maybe I’m just hungry.