By Edward Dolnick
“I am here to make you think,” Mark Rothko shouts, in the play “Red.” “I am not here to make pretty pictures.” Rothko’s assistant, the target of his attack, hollers back. “Not every painting has to rip your guts out and expose your soul!” Art can distract, uplift, amuse, even — shockingly — entertain.
“Red” is a remarkable work, winner of the Tony for best play in 2010. But as remarkable as the play itself is RAAC Community Theatre’s daring, admirable decision to take on so deep and difficult a work. In a sense, the Theatre has fought through its own version of the debate in “Red.” It has delighted audiences with friendly, approachable productions like “Annie” and “The Odd Couple.” But it has taken on challenges, like “Uncle Vanya” and “The Gin Game,” that might have made even a snob and purist like Rothko gulp hard.
“Red” was, considering that it was a madly ambitious gamble, almost a prudent choice. There are only two actors and a single set. All were dazzling. Howard Coon played the brilliant, self-important, obsessed Rothko, Brendan Martyn the young painter who worked up his nerve to stand up to — and perhaps outduel — his impossible mentor. Cynthia Stamps arrayed the set with Mock Rothkos that reminded theater-goers of the luminosity of the originals. Andy Platt, who directed, took a play that consists of two people talking and propelled it into vigorous motion.
But the production might still have foundered. Names and ideas fly by. Nietzsche, Apollo, Dionysus. Is this bombast and blather or insight into the nature of creativity? Rothko bullies young Ken with impossible-to-get-right challenges — “what do you see?” — and he issues Delphic pronouncements by the bucketload — “Silence is so accurate,” “movement is life,” “a picture lives by companionship.”
The play takes on extra power when Ken fights back. Does Rothko truly scorn success and fame or is it simply that he envies the younger rivals who threaten to push him aside, as he once pushed aside his elders? And what about all the lofty talk of murals to adorn the Four Seasons restaurant, in midtown Manhattan. (Rothko stood to earn $2 million, in today’s money, for his paintings.) Precisely why, Ken demands, is “the High Priest of Modern Art painting a wall in the Temple of Consumption?”
Art and its meaning always lie at the heart of the battle between the two rivals. But the play is more than a fight about how to interpret Rothko’s “fuzzy rectangles” of black and red. Money and taste and competition and the lust for fame shove their way into the debate. What does reputation have to do with merit? How does an artist find a place for himself, when he trails after so many titans? “Courage in painting isn’t facing the blank canvas, it’s facing Manet.”
These are big questions, posed in a little theater. RAAC Community Theatre is here to make you think.
Edward Dolnick lives in Rappahannock. His next book, “The Seeds of Life,” tells the story of science’s struggle to learn where babies come from. It will be published next year.