Commentary

Reviews (3)
Well-Crafted Look at the Role of Art in Life

Richard Wattenberg | The Oregonian [01 Mar 2012]

Recently, what might be the oldest known piece of abstract art, an engraved stone dating back 100,000 years, appears to have been recovered in a cave in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Art seems to be integral to the human experience, but why? What is the role of art in our lives?

These questions are at the heart of John Logan’s 2009 Tony Award winning play “Red,” which is now receiving a wonderfully well-crafted and thoughtful production from Portland Center Stage. Directed by PCS’s associate artistic director, Rose Riordan, this bio-drama about Portland-bred abstract expressionist Mark Rothko takes us back to 1958-59 when the artist was working on a series of murals intended for New York City’s renowned Four Seasons Restaurant.

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Set in Rothko’s New York City Bowery studio (splendidly represented here in all its grimy details and with all its artistic paraphernalia by scene designer Daniel Meeker), the play revolves around the relationship between Rothko (Daniel Benzali) and Ken (Patrick Alparone), whom the artist recently hired to assist him in stretching canvasses, mixing paints, cleaning brushes, and doing sundry gopher-like tasks. Despite Rothko’s denial of the fact, their association is very much of the mentor-student order. It is by way of Rothko’s generally pedagogical connection to Ken that we learn about his ideas on art.

Logan’s Rothko disdainfully rejects the notion that art is merely a decorative commodity, what he calls “an overmantel”—something pretty to be owned, hung over a mantel, and ultimately ignored. On the contrary, Rothko’s art is meant to be a source of deeply emotional and spiritual experience. His paintings represent the uncomfortable symbiosis of ultimately irreconcilable opposites. The play of color in his art, especially of red and black, Logan’s Rothko tells us, conveys our ultimately futile tragic efforts to balance passion and reason, chaos and order, and life and death.

Like his art, Rothko himself as he appears in this play is a canvas containing unresolved opposites. In portraying this character, Daniel Benzali skillfully negotiates these contrasting features bringing life and depth to the aging artist. He gives us a gravelly voiced, crusty Rothko who one moment can rage imperiously at Ken and in the next, jocularly offer him a glass of scotch. He treasures silence but rhapsodizes enthusiastically on the virtues of red in Matisse’s “The Red Studio.” Benzali’s Rothko instantaneously shifts from mildly caustic humor to dreamy exhilaration to deep despair, but never is there any doubt of the intensity of his dedication to his art.

And yet by the play’s conclusion Benzali’s Rothko needs Ken’s prodding to maintain the integrity of this faith. In this regard, the teaching between mentor and student here as in other modern dramas structured around mentor/mentee relationships, goes both ways . Still, even as Patrick Alparone adeptly suggests Ken’s growing confidence with more directly confrontational tones and gestures, Benzali’s Rothko hold his own—maintaining his brusque self-assurance.

In the end, for these characters, about whose lives outside Rothko’s studios we hear preciously little, the relationship of art and life is clear: art is life, and life is art.

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Weekend Wrap: ‘Red,’ Rothko & ‘Giselle’

Barry Johnson | OPB [01 Mar 2012]

Art can get under your skin, drive you to extremes, bring you to think things you might rather leave unthought. It’s tough, serious business. But then, it can also set your analytical brain to rest and create an entirely different world where the laws of gravity don’t apply and where spirits rule the night.

What am I going on about? Why, Mark Rothko and the bio-drama Red, on the one hand, and Giselle on the other.

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Red, Portland Center Stage: This morning John Logan is undoubtedly celebrating the Oscars Rango and Hugo won last night — he wrote the screenplays for both of them, after all. But he also did a lot of celebrating with Red, which won Tony, Drama Desk, Drama League and Outer Critic Circle awards after it was first produced in London in 2009. I’m surprised he has energy left after all that partying!

It’s hard to believe the same guy wrote both scripts. Red couldn’t be more serious and intense, a deep, long look at an artist wrestling with himself, the universe and his first great commission. Oh, and his gallery assistant, who represents the changing of the guard. And yes, that artist is Mark Rothko, who attempted the impossible — to make art that severs all connections to the real world, but still has a very real effect on the humans in that world: “I am here to stop your heart,” Logan has him say. “I’m not here to make pretty pictures.”

Like Rothko’s art, it’s a deceptively simple play. One act, four scenes or so, two actors, and reproductions of the paintings that Rothko made for the Four Seasons restaurant commission in various states of completion. Rothko and Ken, the assistant, mostly talk, though Ken sometimes stretches a bit of canvas and together the two lay on the first coat of red paint on a fresh canvas. They do it swiftly, and the audience on opening night applauded!

I hesitate to use the word “red.” One of the best scenes in the play is a repudiation of that simple word by Rothko and a spew of possible replacements first by Rothko and then by Ken. In describing possible interpretations of “red,” they get down to the red seeping to the top of the Barbasol shaving cream from a shaving nick. Blood, of course.

Daniel Benzali makes a magisterial Rothko, one moment imagining himself in the company of Rembrandt, the next worried about the crop of Pop artists who are about to “take down” Abstract Expressionism, the tiny mammals scurrying to replace the dinosaurs, certain of himself and tormented, grandiose and practical. Somehow he makes standing in front of an imaginary canvas exciting.

Patrick Alparone as the gallery assistant makes a fine foil, slender and quick, finally moved to fight back against the Imperium inside the studio, and maybe Rothko teaches him that the future is his.

Mark Rothko, Portland Art Museum: Would Red be quite so interesting if the art museum hadn’t just opened an exhibition of his work? And conversely, would the exhibition have the same effect without the play? Probably not. For the first time Portlanders have a chance to see the range of Rothko’s work, from his early days through his brush with surrealism and then on to the floating rectangles of color that made him famous. The paintings give us an instant point of reference for Rothko’s speeches about his art in Red, but those speeches go a long way toward explaining what Rothko’s floating rectangles are all about.

Do Rothko’s paintings change your emotional weather? Well, that’s a subjective question, isn’t it? Are we human enough to “understand” them, which is the challenge of Rothko in the play? I’m not sure that’s a fair question. But I love that art can drop us in the middle of unfair questions, and unanswerable ones, too.

On Sunday afternoon, a week after the opening, the gallery at the art museum was full of people wrestling with them, sometimes perplexed and sometimes in reverie. Either response makes perfect sense.

I’ll be discussing Rothko, Red and this show at much greater length at Oregon Arts Watch later in the week, if you want to dig a little deeper into this whole Rothko business. He did live in Portland for a time as an adolescent before heading east for fame and fortune, after all.

Giselle, Oregon Ballet Theatre: Yes, it was a busy weekend in Portland, thank you very much. With modern art on my mind, I wasn’t sure how well primed I would be for a story ballet of the Romantic Era, no matter how lovingly it was staged by Lola de Avila for Oregon Ballet Theatre.

I shouldn’t have worried! This Giselle was a fine counterpoint to Rothko, actually. The sets and costumes were glorious, the dancers in fine form, the story clearly told, the music played with dash and then pathos by the OBT orchestra led by Niel DePonte. I found it impossible to leave without a smile on my face.

Now, some of that, admittedly, is because I have a hard time suppressing certain thoughts during a story ballet. For example, in Giselle, how can the peasants in Act I dance around so happily, when they know that the ghosts of jilted maidens who’ve died before they could marry are lying in wait for them, ready to dance them into oblivion, especially the male ones who happen to wander into the cemetery? Personally, I wouldn’t be partnering with a smile on my face if I knew the Wilis could come and get me later that night.

Then I remind myself that it’s a fairy tale, and return to the visions on stage. Many of them on opening night were supplied by Haiyan Wu as Giselle, so light and graceful, and seemingly so fragile, yet when she’s tested by complicated pointe work or demanding phrases, she tosses them off effortlessly, inviting you into the story, encouraging you to set aside your analytical thoughts about the real world and join hers, where beautiful girls die of broken hearts and Wilis take their revenge on the perpetrators.

Chauncey Parsons, as Albrecht, the nobleman who falls for Giselle, though he’s betrothed to the daughter of the Prince of Courtland, partners her with the same lightness and strength. They seem made for each other. But we could go on and on about the dancing, which continues to get better and better at OBT, so good that the dancers can overcome the reluctance of a crusty old cynic to follow their fairy tale along to the end.

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Review: Red

Gigi Little | Ut Omnia Bene [25 Feb 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.

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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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