Chicago Goodman Theatre's Red Exposes the Art and Soul of Abstract Expressionist Painter Mark Rothko.

Chicago Goodman Theatre's Red Exposes the Art and Soul of Abstract Expressionist Painter Mark Rothko.
(l to r) Ken (Patrick Andrews) and Rothko (Edward Gero) work feverishly to prime a canvas for one of Rothko’s murals.

Chicago, Monday, October 3, 2011. Goodman Theater’s Chicago Premiere of John Logan’s Tony-award-winning play Red could just as aptly be titled “Portrait of An Artist” as the production is able to get inside Mark Rothko’s head, heart and soul.  The show which just opened at Goodman Theatre under the direction of Robert Falls is an honest heart-rendering drama of a man who became a painter to raise painting to the level and poignancy of music and poetry.

Born in 1903, in Latvia, as Marcus Rothkowitz, he emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1913, following the path of many other Jews, during the Cossack purges. His career began in New York in 1923, after a stint at Yale University where he found conditions to be too WASP, racist and elitist.

An intelligent, principled and serious artist Rothko said “There is only one thing in life I fear, my friend…one day the black will swallow the red.” “What do you see”, was the agonizing question that Rothko asked again and again. Distraught that most people only saw “blobs of paint” and nothing more in his art, Rothko desperately tried to get people to understand the life and death struggle in his works–the black paint trying to conquer the red, death trying to take life, and to see the multiplicity and “pulse” in his work.

Rothko disdained any kind of commercialism and shunned painters such as Andy Warhol for his soup cans; and Jackson Pollack for his publicity antics.  Then he found himself on the same slippery slope, when in 1958 he was offered a commission to create a series of murals for New York’s upscale Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building.  Although Rothko was exhilarated by the free reign along with the generous $35,000 fee offered, he faced a number of challenges—including a prospective audience that he had professed to scorn. The story centers on his work and struggles with his principles during this period that takes place in 1958 and 1959.

The big picture, in this emotionally charged production that pairs Mark Rothko (Edward Gero) with Ken (Patrick Andrews), a fictitious young assistant and aspiring artist, is Rothko’s life-long struggles both personally and artistically.  The pairing of the older Gero with his young assistant Andrews is the perfect device to showcase the artist and his struggles.

Gero paints Rothko with a rough exterior that lightly veils his inner vulnerability.  Andrews is no shrinking violet in the role of artist assistant Ken, which would be easy to be in the presence of the gruff and socially awkward Rothko.  Ken is not afraid to speak his mind and we watch as the relationship between the two grows in a series of stops and starts.

Todd Rosenthal’s design creates a realistic artist’s studio with high-ceilings, shelves lined with art supplies and enormous canvases that Gero and Andrews hoist throughout the show–even priming one entire canvas in a powerful music-backed sequence (as seen in the picture at the top of this post).

Red is a special show that comes along once in a blue moon.  It draws you into the spirit and humanity of a man and his work.  His deep caring and wanting others to care cuts to the quick. Red paints a remarkable picture of a man you will not soon forget.

Tickets and Information.

Red runs through October 30, 2011, in the Goodman’s Albert Theatre; tickets are $25 – $84 (prices are subject to change). Box office: 312 443 3800. 170 N. Dearborn Street.  Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission.

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