If you’ve ever had to struggle understanding abstract art, you are not alone. The central figure in “Red” is artist Mark Rothko, one of the most notable and revered Abstract Expressionist artists of the 1940-50s. Rothko embodied the challenge of abstract art through his own personal struggles as a painter. Rothko’s battle to be authentic to his vision and the purity of his art was intense and very, very personal. He was a crusader, to say the least. In many ways, he was his own best fan and own worst critic.
In The Rep’s production of “Red,” which is directed by Steve Woolf, Mark Rothko is played by Brian Dykstra. Rothko was a man of Russian ancestry who “revised” his name to be more palatable to art devotees. Rothko portrays him as a kind of barrel-chested bully, a restless man always on the hunt for that difficult moment of true understanding of what he, his art and the world they inhabit are really all about.
Matthew Carlson is the second person in this one-act play. He plays Ken, a young artist who has been hired by Rothko as an assistant. Ken wants to learn from Rothko…to absorb some of his genius by being a part of his process. Unfortunately, there’s not much Rothko can teach about his process. He is so tormented by it that he barely understands it himself, and what he does understand frustrates him to the point of anger. Rothko’s opinions spew forth from him like a verbal volcano. He displays confidence in his beliefs, even though it is evident that his own self-doubt and insecurities are always present, if not admitted.
There is one telling scene in “Red” in which Mark and Ken quickly paint a red base on a large canvas. It’s a kind of dramatic choreography that reveals, in a few moments, more than a lot of pages of dialogue could. It is a peek into the process, and the glimpse reveals the energy and angst of it all.
“Red” is a robust, passionate production on a topic that can never really be completely understood. But true to the cause, it reveals that the pursuit is always worthwhile. You don’t have to be an artist to see the value in “Red.” It’s a show that demonstrates that life and everything about it is a daily struggle of understanding and hope.
It also clearly shows that a life without passion is a life best left unpainted.