I got the chance to sit in on a rehearsal of Blackbird Theater’s production of Red last night. I knew it came with high recommendations. I knew it won the Tony for best play. I knew it was about art. What I didn’t know was exactly what to expect.
The play is a two-man show about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. If the name Mark Rothko doesn’t ring a bell, I can pretty well guarantee you that you’ll recognize his work. He paints those big fuzzy rectangles of black and red that hang in the dreaded (to many) modern art galleries. It’s a style of art that tends both to fascinate me and to make me a bit uneasy—uneasy because it’s often difficult to know what to think of it. If you’ve ever had even an inkling of that uneasiness as you’ve strolled through an art gallery, this is a show for you.
The play is a series of heated conversations between Rothko, who is arguably nearing the end of his run (and his life) and his young assistant who reluctantly begins poking holes in the painter’s sense of importance. What comes of these clashes is a rich discussion of what art is and how it’s created and what it means to us and to our society.
In one scene, Rothko suggests that human life teeters between the vital swath of red in his paintings and the hungry black void that threatens to swallow it. It’s an idea that is, I think, central to the play as the discussions expose the pretense of an artist like Rothko, while at the same time effectively justifying his artistic vision. There are no simple judgments to be made, and no simple answers, not about art, not about Rothko, not about our world. There is tragedy in every brushstroke, says Rothko. And as the narrative unfolds, the layers of the characters are slowly peeled back to prove it.
What is art? Why is art? Where does it come from and what might it mean? If you’ve ever wandered through an art gallery and scratched your head, come see Red with us on Friday night. It’s time well spent. There will be a Q&A session after the curtain. Don’t miss it.