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Mark Rothko in Chapel Hill

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I owe Mark Rothko an apology. Over the years, I've repeatedly walked past his work in the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn and MOMA ... and just kept walking, affording little more than a glance to the famous multiform paintings of his late period—broad canvasses with large, colored, rough rectangles set against contrasting backgrounds.

At the time I would have said, "They just don't speak to me." The words are true. They also conveniently elide over the few seconds in which I actually gave any of them the chance.

But in the potent opening monologue of John Logan's drama Red, Rothko (Stephen Caffrey) delivers a primer on how to look at many other works besides his own. Underpinning a series of questions and demands that vacillate, precariously, between pedagogy and kvetch, is a primary assertion: The only way we get anything from a work of art is by entering into a relationship with it.

Yes, that's quite an opening. Thankfully, under guest director Vivienne Benesch's pensive but animated direction, the pointed interrogation of what we experience in the presence of art—and what artists experience in the creation of it—continues for the rest of an all-too-brief evening.

Logan's script—and Jan Chambers and Charlie Morrison's effective set design and lights—place us within Rothko's New York studio in 1958. Some 10 years into his work with multiforms, Rothko's palette has grown conspicuously darker. He now needs an assistant to help him realize his largest commission, slated to grace the Four Seasons restaurant and to become known as the Seagram murals.

But as the two continue, Ken, a younger artist, raises increasingly pointed questions of his own.

As Rothko rails against the banality of consumerism, Ken probes the ethics with which the art world, Rothko included, have negotiated inevitable transitions in aesthetics and taste. And if works of art demand individual relationships, Ken observes what happens when those relationships turn toxic—and potentially eclipse all others.

As Rothko, Caffrey deftly combines a stern taskmaster with an artist all but pleading for understanding. In Matt Garner's Ken, we see an apprentice slowly turn into a potential master. As their relationship develops, we watch two worlds, two sensibilities and two times fight it out in a dimly lit studio. The aesthetic focus of Red's single conversation invites comparison with the film My Dinner With Andre. The only thing is, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory never attacked each other's fundamental assumptions the way Ken and Mark do, when the gloves come off at the end.

Rothko's first words, directed to Ken, provide valid insights in how to speak back to an art work as well—useful words to critics in that art form and others, including theater. However, their questions ultimately are aimed at the audience. What do we see when we look at a painting—or a play? And what does that say about the artists, and the viewers?

This article appeared in print with the headline "Better off red."

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