John Logan's "Red" is either genius or the ultimate example of stolid pretension.
Thirty minutes in, most audience members at Dallas Theater Center's (DTC) production of the Tony-award winning play, at least those who aren't distracted by the brilliantly experiential set, will want to throw up their hands in surrender at Logan's overbearingly solipsistic Rothko.
"Red" is a play about Mark Rothko, in case you weren't aware. The play's action consists of a "discussion" between Rothko played here by Kieran Connoly and Ken, the enthusiastic Jordan Brodess, which takes place over the course of Ken's two-year apprenticeship with the Abstract Expressionist master.
During the course of the play Ken grows from a timid young artist, seemingly in awe of Rothko's genius, into a worthy foil for Rothko's incessant discussion of the nature of his own art. Ken represents us, the audience, albeit a slightly more art savvy version.
Audience members are seated in Bob Lavallee's immersive reproduction of Rothko's studio and the direction and sets allow the audience an inside look at the theoretical process of creation behind one of Rothko's massive canvases.
Aspects of Rothko's character are conveyed brilliantly through Logan's dialogue and Connolly's belabored Rothko. From the profound identification Rothko felt between color and life, the frustration he felt at his inability to dictate the way his work would be perceived by the viewer and his insecurity, which evinces itself in obnoxious egoism and an ever-present need to prove himself through the denigration of "popular" artists.
A memorable example occurs after Ken (Brodess) visits a Pop Art exhibit at MoMA and Rothko's typical skepticism is countered by Ken's critique of Rothko's inability and lack of desire to understand his audience.
The theatrical audience is led to the conclusion that some mysterious combination of tragedy and self-consciousness plagued Rothko's career and, to Logan's credit, we're left unsure of whether we should despise or pity Rothko's tortured genius.
But none of this explains the purpose of the play.
What Logan manages to force upon the audience in "Red" is a profound frustration with the way we as a society discuss modern art. It's abstract and pretentious and altogether meaningless because after all, as Rothko belatedly discovers, he has no control over how the audience views his work, just as he has no control over Ken's inadequate dissection of his violent paintings.
I found myself questioning as I left the theater who the audience for "Red" actually is. It's seemingly exhausting for non-art enthusiasts and not particularly enlightening to those intimately familiar with modern art and Rothko.
Then I realized that's the point. That's why we're all so fascinated by this play.
Most people don't understand modern art. Since we can no longer look at a piece of art and appreciate it for what it is, we have developed a fascination with the artist instead of the artwork.
"Red" is the dramatization of our preference for history as a means to understand art instead of art for art's sake. We need Rothko's cerebral rambling because we can't understand his painting without it. And Rothko needs us to hear his rambling because modern art isn't about the canvas, it's about the painter and the action that went into its creation.
Joel Ferrell's direction of the two actors in this production serves to elucidate this problem innate to modern art and especially Abstract Expressionism, and whether that conclusion serves to further frustrate or enlighten, the play serves its purpose.