Sunday, November 30, 2014

Red Is a Work of Art

By James E. Trainor III
Photo courtesy Fourth Room Theatre

L-R: Richard Glockner, Matthew James
Cedar Rapids - There's a small print of an old Rothko hanging near the circulation desk in the library at West High. Whenever I walk past it, I find myself trying to imagine what the students think of it. Do they feel drawn in, madly curious about who the man was and what he meant by this? Or do they merely give it a cursory glance while Facebook loads, and then go back to their phones? To me, the carefully arranged rectangles of color seem out of place, archaic, desperately alone, in need of perhaps a paragraph of text off to the side explaining, giving them context. I often feel this way with the Abstract Expressionists: I feel left out, like I missed the joke, like I'm not smart or sensitive enough to "get" it. It makes me wonder: are we losing something irreplaceable when a great master dies and his work begins to fade? Or are the next Rothkos wandering the halls of our high schools this very moment, thinking in movements and forms we can't even dream of?

In John Logan's Red, which deals with the death and birth of art movements, we have Rothko resurrected to explain his work to us. In Fourth Room's production, directed by Angie Toomsen, Rothko (Richard Glockner) sets his assistant Ken (Matthew James) center stage and explains to him how the paintings work. It's through James' character work that we see the effect of Rothko's paintings and his pontifications; Ken, bored and irritated at the onset, grows first tense, then excited, then chatty and enthusiastic as the master describes his masterpiece. Through Glockner's work we see that Rothko is equally excited; as he ages and watches the world outgrow him, he desperately needs someone to understand why art matters. This theme of the passing of the torch, and the push and pull of different generations, is very prevalent in Red, and some careful relationship work from Glockner and James makes it effective here.

At the top of the play, Rothko is the godfather of modern art, and Glockner's massive stage presence shows it. We hear Rothko before we see him, Glockner's voice filling the space and ringing off the walls. He lurks in the shadows as James strains, trying to get the most out of the painting in front of him. Like Ken, we feel a little intimidated, a little overwhelmed. We are in the presence of a master, and he's keen to let us know it. Glockner is a blast in these early scenes; he's very playful in the role, making what is basically a lecture on art history and culture a joy to listen to. When he rattles off lists of the greats, every name is imbued with its own character, its own significance. He is brash, humorous, and above all, lofty. He gives us the central question of the piece as a professor gives the topic of his lecture: is the next generation worthy to stir the paints of those who have gone before?

This interaction is very one-sided, and deliberately so; Glockner assaults James with rhetorical questions, James attempts to engage, Glockner takes off on a tangent before he can respond. In these simple moments, they find a lot of humor in the piece, and they also give us an excellent sense of Rothko and Ken: Rothko a brilliant but lonely old man who desperately needs to share what he knows, and Ken a needy young man who's willing to tolerate it all to be accepted. In these opening moments, Glockner and James lay a lot of groundwork to make what follows more effective.

As time goes on, Ken begins to stand on his own, though Rothko doesn't really notice it. It all comes to a head when the Pop Art movement threatens to dethrone the Abstract Expressionists, as the Abstract Expressionists stomped out the Cubists. It's a natural progression, one that Rothko himself outlined earlier: the son must kill the father and take his place. Here, however, he doesn't want to hear it, it's all crap, garbage, trivial, and Ken needs to shout to be heard. It shows us the problem with teaching anything, with passing anything on: do we ever actually listen to our kids? See what they've picked up, what they've discarded? Or are we too full of our own self-importance, sure we've got it right? It takes Ken to show Rothko what he's really been doing: dragging his feet for two years working on a huge commercial commission that he doesn't want to complete. When he finally accepts this, he can let the money go and move on -- but of course, then he doesn't need Ken anymore. Glockner shows us some great character growth in these moments; he somehow manages to be arrogant and apologetic at the same time, and the intimacy is made more potent by the fact that it is painful and awkward.

The story we've heard before -- the apprentice has proved himself and can step off into the world -- but it's the dance of generations, and the intense conflict of aesthetics, that makes Red so fascinating. Logan centers much of the conversation around Rothko's favorite book, The Birth of Tragedy, in which (to oversimplify) Nietzsche tells us that all art is a struggle to find the balance between two internal forces -- passion and intellect. This metaphor fits with the American culture at the time; we see a society desperately trying to find the balance within itself. Pop Art, Ken insists, is needed because people in 1959 are tired of pretension and seriousness. They need something of-the-moment, disposable. In essence, they need an escape, a break. They've had a little more Rothko than they can handle. They need someone to tell them everything's going to be okay. On the other hand, Rothko reminds us, everything is certainly not okay. As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the Cold War churns on, America is more conflicted and contradictory than it has ever been. It would be easy to dismiss Rothko as a grim old man, but we should never forget the things he has seen: this is a man who lived through not only two World Wars, but a bloody revolution in his own country.

So what is art for? To comfort us, or to sober us? At rare inspired times, it can do both, and Red does that well. Rothko and Ken represent opposite ends of the spectrum, but they share their love of the form. The actors do a wonderful job fleshing out these two and drawing us into their lives, and Toomsen underlines the big questions in the way she drives the piece. It makes the night a perfect balance; something that makes you laugh and enjoy yourself, but also makes you sit up and take notice.

The layout at CSPS is great for an intimate two-hander like this. Designer Scott Olinger eschews the proscenium stage, instead putting up a three-quarter thrust on the floor. Down left is the table used to mix paint, very close to the audience, where the smell of paint is very potent. Some pieces of the studio are actually behind the audience, which adds to the authenticity, making us feel we're in the middle of the action. When James ducks into the corner to get paint, Glockner turns toward him, and consequently toward us. Large open frames hanging over the audience leave us to imagine the paintings in progress, as well as helping to keep sightlines open. This sort of setup gives a lot more potential than traditional staging, and Toomsen makes great use of it.

Red is now closed, having made the trip from Waterloo to Cedar Rapids, but I encourage you to keep an eye out for Fourth Room's future offerings. Instead of filling in slots of a predetermined "season," Fourth Room picks shows on a project-by-project basis, freeing them to select shows that drive them to fully commit to the work. Check here for news and updates.

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