By John Logan

“A fictionalized account” according to the at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte playbill.

Cut for mild spoilers and discussion of disturbing themes

ETA: Did some rewrites.

Before the play started, I talked to Chip Decker, the director.  He said that Mark Rothko had aspirations to work in the theatre.  The second he mentioned that, I thought of the Italian Baroque period with their paintings that, as a professor of mine once observed, “resembled something out of a stage play”.  Then the actor playing Rothko (Rob Kahn) onstage mentions Caravaggio to his assistant Ken (Jeremy DeCarlos).  In fact, they name drop a lot of artists from Western art history going as early as the Baroque to the contemporary such as Warhol.  I wonder if that acts as a quick lesson for people who do not have an in-depth look at art history.
The play has three themes swirling around the two characters:  The double-edged sword of commerce that artists must use, the color red and everything  it can symbolize, and duality.  The theme of duality occurs thanks to discussion of the Apollonian and the Dionysian between the two.  Acting as these two forces, Emotional Ken and Intellectual Mark duel against each other.  Letting his feelings, Ken reveals his childhood of violence (the color red in Rothko’s work triggers this memory) and often bares the brunt of Mark’s cold insults for simply enjoying art and not acting intellectual enough.  Interesting since art history puts him in a movement known for emotion.  Also, Rothko’s drinking and passion for his art in the play can put him under the Dionysian category.

Going to the main plot, Rothko, with the help of Ken, creates paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant.  This plot, along with the color red, reminds me of this person visited my high school to discuss.  She said that restaurant owners sometimes use red to help encourage hunger in customers.  While Rothko aspires to put his paintings at the Four Seasons (and the Seagrams building), he rails against artists who received celebrity status and the kind of people who can afford to eat at the Four Seasons.  He loathes how museums use harsh lighting on art and he hates how people who buy art just for social status.  Thankfully, Ken confronts Rothko for his possessive relationship with his paintings and hating the people who take interest in his work.  Ken  does not stop there.  Near the end, he points out that Rothko has turned into the very celebrity he despises.  He also tells Rothko that he has turned into the Establishment and hates that Pop Art and its members has overthrown his status as a rebel, just as he did with earlier artists such as Picasso.

A very emotional roller coaster, this play.  I found it funny, intellectual, and tragic at the same time.  Both actors did an amazing job.  Playing Rothko, Rob Kahn depicts him as cold, cynical, abrasive, and incredibly smart.  Playing Ken, Jeremy DeCarlos plays him with innocence, a desire to learn, and possessing a resilience that helps him survive Rothko’s personality.  I nearly broke into tears when he talks about a loss in his family.

One thing I still have mixed feelings about, comes from a scene where Ken finds Rothko sitting hunched over, and his hands covered with blood.  The play tricks you, for he does not actually commit the act, he just passed out and he spilled his drink.I felt extremely uncomfortable about this scene because it practically reenacts Rothko’s suicide.

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