The struggle between generations is portrayed to riveting effect in playwright John Logan’s Red onstage at St. Paul’s Park Square. When aging abstract expressionist Mark Rothko is commissioned to provide paintings for a ritzy New York restaurant he takes on a youthful assistant named Ken. Rothko mistakes his encyclopedic free-wheeling knowledge and contempt for the present day -1958 is the year the play is set- for wisdom.
Rothko, played magnificently by J C Cutler, is a virtual machine gun of opinions with endless rounds of ammo that reveal on the plus side a classical sensibility and vibrant feel for history. On the minus side, belligerence, perfectionism, pettiness, and mean-spiritedness. Steven Lee Johnson’s Ken is splendid. We see him slowly overcome Rothko’s intimidation as he sheds his feelings of inadequacy. His path to ultimately challenging the master.
Indeed, there are moments when you think, how can anyone counter what Ken has pointed out? Yet Rothko almost always does find a maddeningly, seemingly legitimate justification for his arrogance and emotional cruelty. However, Logan structures the play so Ken is on the way to metaphorically ‘killing the father’, the Freudian concept that has lodged into Rothko’s psyche. It’s thrilling to watch.
For Rothko, the color black represents death. Ken sees that as an old stereotype. He also sees the power of different colors. Why can’t black or red or any given color be postitive or negative? Do we choose to invest colors with what we need them to be and not the neutral things they may actually be. Director Richard Cook describes Red as a piece in which “the action of beating back the tragic, the black, the darkness of death could lead us to a brighter ‘red’ place”.
Note: Red runs 90 minutes without intermission.
Through Oct. 7
Park Square Theatre, 408 St. Peter St., St. Paul