Saturday, February 25, 2012


I’m not a fan of Rothko or abstract expressionism, especially the types of paintings that appear – literally and figuratively – in the play Red, which we saw last night at Portland Center Stage. Big canvases covered with huge shapes of red and black. At times, I can enjoy the free association thing that happens in your brain when you look at nothing but color or shape, but I tend to be in the “my kid could do that,” camp. Not that I have any kids, but it’s a line Rothko himself delivers in the play when talking about and scoffing over what critics say about him.

And of course my date for the evening was Stephen, who can get up as high on a high horse as I can about art. As we sat down in the theater, he mentioned some Portland art personalities he’d seen in the crowd.

“I feel like…” he said, “what’s that expression where you’re the enemy hiding in the grass? A sheep in wolf’s clothing? No, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. No, that’s not right.”

“A snake in the grass?” I said.

But I think both of us felt that way, out of our element. Out of our art comfort zone. My art comfort zone is being able to enjoy talking about why I don’t like art like Rothko. Did the play change my feelings on this? No. It didn't have to. For me, the play was more about human obsession, fear of death, fear of getting old.

It’s a simple set-up - a young guy [Ken - played by Patrick Alparone] and an older guy [Rothko - played by Daniel Benzali] in an art studio together. Ken, an artist himself, has been hired by Rothko to stretch his canvases, clean his workshop, help paint the primer coats. It’s 1958. Rothko is the current old-school and Ken is new-school, and much of the play is figurative swordplay, the two philosophizing and arguing about art and what it means. Rothko is also a monomaniac and on the defense, so the art studio is quite a crucible. At times the dialogue feels cliché and over-sentimental – on both sides – but each of the men is quick to call the other out for being cliché and over-sentimental, so the humor of it keeps things in check. After all, this is how two men obsessed with art talk. A lot of what Rothko says in the play comes from true quotes during his lifetime. Daniel Benzali delivered his lines with power and with a nice sense of comic timing.

Here’s a spoiler – I want to talk about one particular scene, the moment where the two men are priming a canvas together. Their backs are to us and they work fast, sending paintbrushes across an enormous canvas and covering it with red. Because it’s so large, this takes some time. For a while, the audience is just watching them work—although it’s frenetic work, performed against booming classical music. For me, part of this moment felt like story, guided by what I’d learned in the play up until then, and part of it felt the way looking at abstract art feels, how you let your mind go and free associate. When you look at a painting that’s nothing but color and shape, everything that comes up is you, is your life. It's not really the work of the artist laying down those squares of red and black. Rothko talks about the conflict between the red and the black, but in the priming scene, there is conflict in story, in character. Ken attacks the canvas like it's a contest to see who can finish first. Rothko seems to be fighting to keep up. I guess what I was doing wasn't so much free-associating as free-speculating, thinking of all the reasons and shades of this particular fight. And what I kept coming back to was age. 

To me, the conflict in the play is old versus young as much as art versus art or personality versus personality. In one of his many rants, Rothko talks about how he and his fellow abstract expressionists killed the cubists, stamped them to death. He likens it to the classical oedipal conflict, that son must kill father. And that's what you're watching when they prime that canvas. That's what you're watching through all the bandying of philosophies, through talk of Pollack and Nietzche and Warhol, through Santa Claus and Satan [see the play and you'll know what i mean]. 

Always lots of food for thought down there at Portland Center Stage. And always a good production. And if you do like Rothko, you can see the play and then go to the Portland Art Museum and see his pieces in person. The play runs through March 18.

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