Fort Worth — Jim Covault, as Mark Rothko, stares at us at the beginning of John Logan’s Red at Stage West. The stance, as well as the performance, is as imposing and inscrutable as Rothko’s moody color field paintings that today sell for millions.
If you are hoping to learn the secret to similarly striking it rich with art, this isn’t the place. But what you will find at the end of director Dana Schultes’ careful production of the 2010 Tony Award-winning Best Play is a respect for art, the artist and the connection between the two.
An assistant, Ken (Nate Davis), clearly on his first day, arrives and is put immediately to the test. Asked to give his opinion of the work in progress, the young artist is tentative in the face of the already famous Rothko who only reinforces the imbalance of power by bringing to bear, at length, the breadth of his learning. It’s the artistic equivalent of the veteran player putting the rookie in his place in the locker room; only instead snapping a towel Rothko uses Nietzsche.
What becomes clear is that for as simple as the paintings are (a commission for the Four Season’s Restaurant for $35,000 in 1958), there’s a surprising amount of forethought and philosophy. The fictitious assistant character provides playwright Logan the opportunity to let us in on the hidden depths behind art that we might otherwise dismiss for its simplicity. It’s the sort of immersion that Logan has exercised successfully in screenplays such as Gladiator, Hugo and The Last Samurai.
The immersion begins with a set designed by Nate Davis with props/set décor by Lynn Lovett. This environment, gently lit by Michael O’Brien, is so accurate you can smell the turpentine. The audience actually flinched when Covault sparked his zippo for fear that the fumes would catch fire. The level of detail struck me on a personal level having grown up working with an artist nearly of Rothko’s generation. We have everything on that stage in the studio, from the jars to the buckets to the classical music. Though we’ve long given up vinyl for WRR/101.1 FM.
Despite Rothko’s intention of keeping it strictly boss/employee, the relationship between these two changes in a series of scenes that take place over two years. Ken grows more confident. His initial questions eventually turn into challenges. Though there is not much that happens that doesn’t concern the making of the paintings for this commission; the plot is as much about Ken’s development. Perhaps that’s why at the end of it, we’re no closer to the secret of Rothko than we were before. Perhaps that is also why Eddie Redmayne won the Tony for playing Ken instead of Alfred Molina, who played Rothko.
In the Stage West outing, Schultes emphasizes clarity. Under her direction, Davis keeps his Ken believable, eschewing dramatic indulgence despite tempting opportunities in the text. It’s as if he knows that he’s our proxy in this “through the looking glass” tour of abstract expressionism, his reactions are our reactions. Once he’s weathered the barrage of artistic rationalizations from Rothko, he gives as good as we would hope to. For his part, Covault’s Rothko remains enigmatic despite spouting volumes. He shoulders the burden of Rothko’s explanations well, however. Though he may not know what the driving force behind the images is, he knows what it is not and is willing to put down the misconceptions. And Covault makes it a heroic, if stoic, stand.
Schultes, as she did in Stage West’s brilliant production of Copenhagen, gets the performances and the ideas out of her cast. The tension between these two characters draws a line tight enough to hang all the larger questions of art and commerce, creation and consumption, Dionysis and Apollo.
The Apollonian order has a slight edge over the Dionysian chaos in this production. It’s the difference between a car race and a high wire act. Both have an element of danger, but director Shultes’ finds the beauty in the balance, not the fall.
Look elsewhere for car crashes.