Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Painting the town Red - again

Mark Zeisler and Ryan Barry see red in Red.  Photo: Meghan Moore.
Bostonians rarely get a chance to see a new script from two different perspectives - but we're enjoying just such a chance right now, as Merrimack Rep presents John Logan's Red (through this weekend), which SpeakEasy Stage produced in town only about a year ago.

I was probably the lone voice questioning the success of that earlier production (partly because I have a special place in my heart for the play's subject, Mark Rothko).  And to my mind the Merrimack version - helmed by its incisive artistic director, Charles Towers - is more serious and satisfying than the SpeakEasy model, which I found far too slick and manipulative.  Indeed, it was so devoted to flattering its audience that it almost became an unconscious travesty of Rothko's ideals, as the artist famously dedicated himself to a lonely mode of transcendence in his luminous, abstract "multiforms."

But you know - I have to admit that the show-bizzy calculations of SpeakEasy weren't entirely in the wrong.  For it eventually becomes apparent at Merrimack that there's only so far even a forceful theatrical intellect like Charles Towers can take this particular vehicle; there's greatness in Rothko, yes, but in the last analysis, Red is only a slick little play about that greatness.  The SpeakEasy boys may not have known from Mark Rothko - but they did know from John Logan.

So it would take a great philosopher to accurately weigh these two approaches in the balance - but me, I'd go with the Towers version any day, which at least gives us a Rothko to reckon with (the man himself at left)  in actor Mark Zeisler, who brings to the role a sense of tragic scale and barely-contained ferocity.  Zeisler not only resembles Rothko (although the artist was taller than the actor), he also conjures a credibly macho aesthetic lion, roaring in sad defeat before the lavender tide of irony that washed over Manhattan in the late 50's and 60's, and pushed Abstract Expressionism into the shadows (seemingly forever).

Does that sound homophobic? Sorry, but that's the historical subtext; Rothko's generation were he-men who spattered, shot, and ejaculated their art all over the canvas (or in the later case of Richard Serra, all over the room) - the symbolism was really that crude; but in contrast, Warhol's generation packaged and marketed their imagery - which was, of course, largely about packaging and marketing.  Logan seems on the surface to treat this divide - his script revolves around Rothko's commission to decorate the Four Seasons, a modernist temple to consumption designed by Philip Johnson, who wasn't only queer but also a Nazi (and Rothko was Jewish!).  The ironies here couldn't be more intense, but Logan basically tiptoes around them. Still, even within the script's limits, I felt actor Ryan Barry, who is playing an amalgam of Rothko's assistants (as well as the only other character in the play) could have teased a bit more unspoken sexual dimension from his role.  (Again, at SpeakEasy this was something of a given - in fact the trouble was that Rothko and his assistant both seemed gay!)

But when I think about it, no production of this slim script I've seen (and this is no. 3 for me) has fully limned the only purely dramatic interest I think Logan's conceit has: the tentative, frustrated attempt at connection between the essentially lonely Rothko and probably the only person he dealt with all day long.  But this hinges on another factor that Logan barely develops: the insecurities lurking beneath  the artist's magisterial mask.  For he was a man with plenty to be insecure about: a Russian who left Russia, a Jew who elided his Jewishness, a Surrealist who had dropped surrealism - Rothko needed an identity, hence his imperious insistence that he had synthesized half of Western culture into  totemic - but non-specific - panels of color (which in Kevin Frazier's subtle lighting design, glow just as they should).

But how could actor Mark Zeisler get beneath the polemics of Logan's play (largely stitched together from Rothko's own statements) to the psyche lurking beneath them?  I'm not sure; Logan gives him little help - although Zeisler does pull off some impressive meltdowns (his voice is a resonant wonder), and he invests the finale (which seeks to conflate Rothko's decline of the Four Seasons offer with his eventual suicide) with a poignant resonance.

But in the end we keep bumping into the play itself.  Logan patches the holes in his text with obvious filler (poor Ryan Barry is saddled with an entirely disposable back story), and the central relationship is only barely developed; but Logan can ride a long way on Rothko's own fierce rhetoric.  And with Mark Zeisler delivering those lines, maybe that's enough.

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