Painter Mark Rothko possessed a personality as huge as many of his most renowned canvases. In the CATCO production of John Logan’s Tony Award winning 2009 play “Red,” Kevin McClatchy wields Rothko’s paintbrush with enough aura and authority to bring that personality to vivid life. Never for a moment does the quietly spectacular artist’s studio set by designer Michael S. Brewer dwarf McClatchy.
“Red” portrays 1958-1959, years in which Rothko worked to fulfill a lucrative commission of murals for the luxury restaurant The Four Seasons in New York’s landmark Seagram Building. Rothko and his fictional assistant Ken stretch and prime canvases, debate aesthetics, and, in the process, educate the audience in the art and science of perceiving and, perhaps, understanding Rothko’s work.
As a sounding board and a theatrical device, Ken provides conflict, serves as a conduit for the audience to approach the great man, contributes his own mysterious secret, and allows Logan to wrap things up just a bit too tidily. But Tim Simeone traces with assurance Ken’s arc of growth from the cowed tenderfoot to the resolute veteran in his verbal wars with Rothko. In their debate about the title color, Ken even exhibits prescience, divining the supposed hue of the Moscow-D.C. hotline phone that wouldn’t exist until 1963.
Helping to address the play’s opening question, “What do you see?,” “Red” serves as a perfect primer to the Columbus Museum of Art’s “Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade, 1940-1950,” moving us from dramatization to realization.