DALLAS -- "There's tragedy in every brush stroke," artist Mark Rothko says after his assistant, Ken, asks "How do you know it's finished?" in John Logan's Red. The play is having its area premiere in an intimate staging from Dallas Theater Center, in a collaboration with the Dallas Museum of Art.
That line captures the essence of the play and the Rothko character as painted in it. Although Logan's setup is fictional -- the initially timid Ken assists Rothko in his Bowery studio in the late 1950s while the artist works on the Four Seasons restaurant commission in the Seagram Building -- the sentiment is true to Rothko, one of the color-field painters from the abstract expressionism era in mid-20th-century America. The outcome is also in line with the way he handled that real-life commission.
Some of Rothko's lines are the artist's actual words, and Logan captures his ongoing struggle with the intellectual and emotional connection to his art, framing it as a debate with the young Ken, who eventually grows confident enough to question his boss/teacher/mentor. In the 90-minute play, innovatively staged in a room on the ninth floor of the Wyly Theatre that's made to look like Rothko's converted gymnasium studio (the set was designed by Bob Lavallee), the audience walks in as Rothko (played by Brierley Resident Acting Company member Kieran Connolly) is sitting, staring at one of the Seagram paintings.
Ken (Jordan Brodess) arrives for his first day at work, and Rothko immediately drills him for thoughts on the work. We eventually learn Ken's easily psychoanalyzed backstory, and Rothko's thoughts on other artists, including contemporaries Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The thought-provoking themes include art versus commerce, the Apollo/Dionysus discussion from Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy and the idea that artists of new movements learn from their predecessors only to kill them off, leading back to an earlier Hamlet reference. Here, that's the progression from cubism to abstract expressionism to pop art. Or, as the play describes it, "Black will swallow the red."
Director Joel Ferrell's staging, with the audience as eerily close voyeurs looking into an artist's studio and mind, is genius, and he elicits powerful performances from both actors. Connolly, who shaved the top of his head to look more like Rothko in this era, immerses himself in the role. The complexities of Rothko's emotional involvement with each brushstroke and possible color combination come through with every sigh, every time he pores over his work and this new person in his life. Brodess convinces in his transition from student to a man bold enough to school the master.
Fittingly, the climax is a fascinating scene with the two painting one of the canvasses with the dark-red mixture as a classical soundtrack swells. By the end of it, they're emotionally exhausted and splattered with blood-colored paint, as if over a fresh kill.
To quote Stephen Sondheim, who also created a brilliant portrait of an artist anguishing over his work in Sunday in the Park With George, and to whom Logan dedicates the play Red: "Art isn't easy."