Mark Zeisler and JD Taylor in Red.
It’s notoriously difficult to successfully stage plays centered on either a writer or a visual artist; so much of the work goes on inside the creative mind, hard to show during the process. It’s slightly easier when the artist is a painter, who throws around colors and commentary as freely as does Mark Rothko in John Logan’s Red, now onstage in an Asolo Rep/Ringling Museum/Maltz Jupiter Theatre co-production at the Historic Asolo Theater.
That’s a fitting venue, by the way, for this two-actor piece; the museum surroundings and the intimate setting of the theater make it natural to slip into a suitable frame of mind (no pun intended) to watch a play about an artist. And Rothko, it’s clear from the beginning of Logan’s award-winning script, is an artist with a capital A.
Even before the curtain we sense that, as we see a paint-splattered Rothko (Mark Zeisler) sitting contemplating a large canvas before moving up to it and, in a way, embracing it with his arms. But from the moment his (fictionalized) assistant, Ken (JD Taylor), arrives on the scene to take up his new job, this version of the famous Rothko also speaks volumes about art, in a practically nonstop barrage that may or may not be authentic to the real man, but certainly is powerful when done theatrically.
Zeisler delivers a degree of intensity that matches Rothko’s paintings, which we see at various stages here as he prepares what came to be known as the Seagram’s murals (originally intended for New York’s Four Seasons restaurant, although they never hung there). In fact, at the outset he comes on so strong that you wonder how his performance can build. You might also feel, as I did, that Taylor as Ken doesn’t really resemble an art student, even one from the late 1950s.
But those minor concerns fall away as the play grows in power, with lots of pungent dialogue being traded back and forth as Ken gradually finds his voice after being initially overwhelmed by Rothko, and reveals a little to his employer (and us) of his own background and desires. “We work hard here,” Rothko says early on, and indeed he and Ken do, especially in a thrilling and wordless pas de deux where they prime a canvas for painting. As their relationship continues over what’s meant to be a two-year period, Rothko boasts about how he and his generation of Abstract Expressionist painters ”stomped Cubism to death”—and Ken eventually taunts Rothko that the Pop Art practitioners coming up will do the same to Rothko and his contemporaries.
Zeisler is impressive as Rothko, aptly displaying the artistic ego and temperament of a man who can both agonize over slight differences in a paint mix and also declare, “Jesus Christ, when somebody tells me one of my paintings is beautiful, it makes me want to vomit.” Taylor as Ken may seem subdued in comparison, but when the worm turns, so to speak, he has his own moments of power and drama.
As directed by Lou Jacob, with a high-ceilinged, windowed Bowery neighborhood set designed by James Kronzer and lighting by Gina Scherr (so important to a play where the artwork must seem to be “illuminated,” often from behind), Red packs more thought and emotion into its 90 intermissionless minutes than many plays of much greater length. If you care anything about art, go see it. It continues through April 22; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.