Insight into the Mind of an American Abstract Expressionist
By Brian P. Sharp
As stated in the production: “everything is not fine in this world”… but this production is more than fine. The art and evolution of Mark Rothko is the subject of Red, a play by John Logan now playing at The Loft Theatre in downtown Dayton. Mark Rothko, a Russian-American artist focused on abstract expressionism, struggles and literally evolves before us as the threat of pop art comes into fashion.
The play, expertly directed by Richard E. Hess and with superb scenic interpretation by Mark Halpin, takes us inside the New York studio of this amazing artist, which was once an old high school gymnasium. The scenic designer managed to provide the audience with an interpretation of the walls that allows us to see “Rothkoesque” images on the back wall of the stage.
So, what happens when a hired assistant starts to challenge the artist’s every thought process? You will find out when you come to see this moving performance. The show runs approximately 90 minutes without an intermission and moves quickly and allows the audience to really feel the pains and emotions that drive the artistic process.
Mark Rothko is in his New York studio in the late 1950s, painting a group of murals for the expensive and exclusive Four Seasons restaurant — housed in the Seagram’s building. Rothko gives orders to his assistant, Ken, as he mixes paints, makes frames and works out his visions. Ken, however, brashly questions Rothko’s theories of art and his acceding to work on such a commercial project.
Rothko remarks in the play that “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world, how often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent.”
Rothko also tells us that “10% is paint on the canvas — the rest is waiting,” and adds that art is about the tragedy … and must ask the question: “what is significant?”
These are the thoughts and questions that are so expertly played by Michael Kenwood Lippert, resident actor of The Human Race Theatre Company, as the character Mark Rothko. Lippert delivers an outstanding performance and takes you into the world that so many people don’t understand … the critical thoughts of the artist. Lippert himself is quite the artist, having been recognized in 2011 with a Governor’s Award for Arts Education.
Lippert’s portrayal of Rothko is moving enough that until the curtain call, you forget all together that you are watching a characterization of such a great artist. Lippert takes you there!
This show allows the audience to know what it was like to see the very foundation of what Rothko believed in, abstract expressionism, to be challenged by a young up-and-coming assistant. In the play, Rothko asks, “Will Warhol be hanging in museums 100 years from now?” Is the next phase of art — this pop art — just a fad … a joke … or is it real … is it art?
Rothko’s assistant Ken is played by Will Allen — an Oakwood High School graduate and a current resident of Chicago. Allen has the nearly impossible job of assisting a “creative.” How does one deal with the idiosyncrasies of an artist, the mood swings and the demands? Well, Allen does just this — and so much more. Allen walks onto the stage a scared apprentice, not sure of what to do, or what he is going to do, and really allows the audience an understanding of what it must feel like to assist someone so creative. You simply don’t know what will happen next. Ken grows a lot over the two plus years he spends assisting Rothko — and he may or may not realize the ways in which he is also helping his boss develop. Ken evolves throughout the play too, and eventually realizes that he too has something to special contribute to the art world.
But not until the end do we get to see that full transformation, and what it means to “love” someone enough to set them free.
This is a show that you must see. You must experience the powerful performances of these two great actors — and learn more about this great American artist.
Red runs through February 5, 2012 at The Loft Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ticketcenterstage.com or by calling the box office at 937-228-3630.
The Human Race Theatre Company has also partnered with the Dayton Art Institute and DAI has a Rothko in its permanent collection and has acquired an additional one for the run of this show. Save your ticket from Red and enjoy a 10% discount on your purchases at the Dayton Art Institute gift shop.
Reach DCP theatre critic Brian P. Sharp at Theatre@DaytonCityPaper.com.