Strong talent infuses 'Red' with Rothko's emotional intensity

'Red,' Seattle Rep's play about the life of painter Mark Rothko, is a wild success at the hands of its talent.

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Denis Arndt as painter Mark Rothko in the Tony Award-winning play, Red, onstage at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

'Red,' Seattle Rep's play about the life of painter Mark Rothko, is a wild success at the hands of its talent.

The color red means different things to different people. Red can be passion or apples or lipstick. It can be a sunset or fire or rage. Or, as painter Mark Rothko reveals in Red, currently on stage at Seattle Repertory Theatre, it can represent both your life’s blood and your life’s work.

As in Art, Yasmina Reza’s 1994 three-letter play on aesthetics, John Logan’s 2010 Tony Award-winning script makes liberal use of a single color as casual talking point, overarching artistic theme, and touchstone for his characters’ personal narratives. Whereas Reza’s color of choice was white, Logan’s is red — and all its shades, permutations, emotional connotations, and metaphysical attributes.

An émigré from Russia, the real Rothko was born in 1903 and spent his formative years in the Pacific Northwest. A largely self-taught artist, Rothko moved from Portland, Ore., to New York City in 1923. He dabbled in a number of artistic styles, eventually settling on a deceptively simple take on abstract expressionism, sometimes called “color fields,” in which two or three rectangles of saturated color visually clash on the canvas, while at the same time blending hypnotically with one another.

Logan’s two-man play is set in 1958, the year Rothko (Denis Arndt) accepted a lucrative and highly commercial commission to paint a series of more than 30 canvases for the tony new Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. Embarking on what amounted to an interior design gig, Rothko, both in the play and in real life, gradually evolved from optimistic to uneasy to utterly repulsed by the idea that his paintings would hang in a posh pit of consumption. His initial vision of “a continuous narrative filling the walls . . . inescapable and inexorable, like doom” unsurprisingly does not jive with the reality of the upper class eatery when he finally pays it a visit.

In the play, the shift in his attitude is aided in no small way by Ken (Connor Toms), an amalgamation of several of Rothko’s real-life assistants. Serving initially as a monosyllabic foil for Rothko’s rants on the business and theory of art (pages upon pages of monologue, broken by a single word from Ken, if we’re lucky), the younger man gradually forms his own opinions and learns to assert them.

Toms allows his interpretation of Ken to grow in fits and starts, shifting unevenly (and thus believably) from an eager to please kid to a maturing artist in his own right who remains quietly desperate for his unwilling mentor's stamp of approval. Toms presents his character's shockingly dark past, which skates a bit too close to outright melodrama, with a tightly coiled repression that contrasts well with Ardnt's flamboyantly self-centered focus.

Though Rothko assures Ken that he is not interested in serving as his teacher, Rothko repeatedly assumes exactly that role, as he seeks to mould Ken’s aesthetic taste and artistic philosophy.

Both Ken and Rothko latch onto certain colors as their personal symbols of life and death. For Rothko, red and black are in constant tension. Though something as simple as color serves as the principal bête noire of the fictionalized Rothko, a great deal of subtext is uncovered just below the superficial “art talk” by Arndt, who was last seen at Seattle Rep in the 2010 production of another Reza play, God of Carnage.

“There is only one thing I fear in life,” he says, foreshadowing the real Rothko’s 1970 suicide. “One day the black will swallow the red.”

Rothko is a completely self-obsessed figure, and Arndt wisely embraces the solipsistic stance. His artistic pronouncements are barked in a light Russian accent with all the pomposity of a deposed military dictator. These occasionally draw laughs, but it's during the character's vulnerable moments that Arndt wins the audience over. His allusion to growing up in the Jewish ghetto in Portland and his painfully detailed description of the sense of class inferiority he suffers while dining at the Four Seasons are delivered with studied understatement, yet nevertheless sting mightily.

Logan wrings an astonishing amount of intimate detail from each of his characters during the play’s uninterrupted 90 minutes. Though he tells us almost nothing specific about their mundane biographies — neither age nor marital status nor where they live, the most personal hopes and fears of both men are repeatedly exposed and examined, like a series of canvases on exhibit.

Kent Dorsey’s set is a wonder of realism, encasing Rothko’s abstract paintings in a fully imagined world. Wingless and with well-concealed flies, from which enormous paintings in various stages of completion are lowered, the brick-walled studio is a closed box devoid of natural light. The floor is stained with rust-colored paint that resembles nothing so much as dried blood.

The set is more evocative of an abattoir than a creative space, with grungy shelves loaded with mysteriously unmarked cans, dirty drop cloths balled up in corners, and a proprietor — clothes spattered with red paint that looks like the spray from a severed jugular — who seems to delight in intellectually torturing his young employee.

Just as the real Rothko’s iconic color field paintings create an eerie sense of harmony in the tension between the hues that dominate each canvas, Red similarly places Ken and Rothko in a state of constant flux onstage, moving from contention to concord with a fluidity that few actors could muster. Director Richard E.T. White gets the men to vigorously slop red paint onto a virgin canvas one moment, then drop to a dead standstill for an intense monologue the next, without the transition seeming jarring.

The actors' nerves seem always to be exposed, quivering at the lightest touch, but they never read as simply nervous. The taut atmosphere of the piece could easily have disintegrated into a series of passionate but clumsy outbursts under less sensitive direction. Nonetheless, all the discursive dialogue can be headache-producing. The unceasing talk of lofty matters of Art, with a capital A, will leave you mentally exhausted by the final curtain.

Red really is a play about color. An all-consuming expanse red is projected on a huge scrim that conceals the stage at the outset of the play. Rothko gradually emerges from the ruddy oblivion, transfixed by the color and profoundly alone. And again at the end, he is suffused with this particular shade of red. His question, “What do you see?” asked in the first moment of the play, returns. By the end of the play, the answer, “Red,” once so straightforward, is as heavily layered and enigmatic as one of Rothko’s paintings.

If you go: Red has been extended through March 24 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. $15-$69. For more information, visit


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