John Logan isn't old enough to remember the intellectual climate on college campuses in 1958-59, the years depicted in his Tony Award-winning Red, currently in its Charlotte premiere at Actor's Theatre. But the playwright is likely blurring the truth artfully when he has Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko scolding his new apprentice for his unfamiliarity with Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy — and berating academia for neglecting this crucial text.
Truth is, Birth of Tragedy, with its exposition of the Dionysian and Apollonian principles in art, was hardly less seminal on-campus than Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Andre Malraux's The Voices of Silence, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams or Rudolf Arnheim's Art and Visual Perception in a budding aesthete's initiation rites. By sending young Ken home to brush up on his Nietzsche, Logan allows his audience to overhear Rothko as he refines Ken's thinking on how Jackson Pollock personified the impulsive Dionysian principle while Rothko embodies the calculating Apollonian.
Throughout the 86-minute drama, Nietzsche's dialectic serves as a fascinating touchstone — for Rothko's place in art history, for his creative process, and for the bumpy terrain of the play itself.
Boastfully, Rothko tells Ken how it was his mission, and that of his contemporaries, to demolish the foundations of modern art established by Picasso, Matisse and their generation. Yet we are reminded that Rothko's own godliness is heading to its twilight when Ken bursts into his Bowery studio aglow with the wonders of the newly emerging Pop Artists. Rothko is obviously mortally offended that it's being done unto him.
He respects the gods he has usurped, and we learn that all great artists, in Rothko's view, combine the Dionysian and the Apollonian in their creations. All the wildness, savagery, spontaneity and drunken celebration that are the Dionysian element must be tamed by the formality, contemplation and craftsmanship of the Apollonian principle.
It seems quite the opposite as we watch Rothko fulfilling the most prestigious commission of his career from architects Philip Johnson and Mies Van der Rohe, a set of murals to be hung in the posh Four Seasons Restaurant in the glorious new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Down in his Bowery studio, Rothko studies his partially completed canvases, mixes paints, pontificates on great artists and artworks, rails against rivals and usurpers, rails some more against art critics and patrons, sends Ken to shop for supplies, then noshes, smokes, and guzzles booze.
Only after all this intellectualization, contemplation, verbalization and alcoholic lubrication does Rothko spring into action, declaring that he is ready to prime a new canvas. Rob Kahn as Rothko and Jeremy DeCarlos as Ken attack the canvas with such gusto, an allegro from Vivaldi's Four Seasons appropriately blasting in the background on a quaint record player, that the action of painting really does look like a bacchanalian revel.
Of the two personalities we see, Kahn's is the intense one, viewing himself and his artistic mission with such seriousness that we can't tell whether his self-absorption will cause him to explode or suffocate. He must be torn away from being the artist in order to be human, yet his arrogance can be unexpectedly hilarious. "Nature doesn't work for me," he says dismissively. After Kahn's auspicious Charlotte debut as the eccentric string player in Opus last month, this Rothko is truly impressive for his piercing, driven intelligence.
DeCarlos seems to be Kahn's polar opposite as Ken, soft-spoken, tentative and obliging. But when he gets over his initial intimidation and sheds his diffidence, excoriating Rothko for all his faults and pretensions, DeCarlos rises suddenly and convincingly to towering heights. Along the way, we can see the student taking in the master's intellectual points while he viscerally absorbs the message of the art and the toll it takes on the artist.
Chip Decker directs with a sure feel for the chemistry between the two men and for Logan's deft zigzag between intellectual discourse and passionate action. It can go so wrong when Ken first enters Rothko's domain and the artist asks the student for his reaction to one of the Seagram murals. It's absurd how many cautions, conditions and codicils Rothko adds to the simple question of "What do you see?" The deluge of his anxiety makes it impossible for Ken to answer! It would degenerate into buffoonery if DeCarlos, staring out as if the canvas were suspended over the audience, didn't give us a Ken who was utterly intent and respectful.
Lighting design must also be pitch-perfect, to uphold the glowing mystery of Rothko's art in dimmed lighting and to substantiate the vaporization of that mystery when normal light pours in. Thankfully, the alchemy between Hallie Gray's lighting design and the likenesses of the murals is flawless.
In fact, I have to strain to find any flaws in this Actor's Theatre production. It was a good five years after 1959 that Miles Davis played in the frenetic style of the track that sound designer Christy Edney has picked for Ken to slip onto Rothko's turntable. But Decker apparently wants us to feel some empathy with Rothko's irritation when he walks in and hears this contraband music. Kind of Blue wouldn't do.
Eleven years after the action depicted here, Rothko would commit suicide. But in Red, Rothko is still at his zenith. So it's appropriate when Ken makes his keenest observation on the Seagram murals — that their creator is allowing the pall of their black blocks of color to slowly creep up and annihilate the vital, dominant reds — the outcome of that clash remains in doubt. This is an artist raging against the dying of the light even as he basks in the spotlight of celebrity. It is one noble spectacle, lightly brushed with tragedy.