Clarence Brown Theater Takes on Rothko in 'Red'

In recent years, the Clarence Brown Theatre company has drawn its biggest crowds for its comedies, Broadway musicals, and plays so familiar they've already been movies. Most of the scripts they interpret, especially in the Mainstage series, are older than most of the actors. It's generally what people want.

Red's different. It's been not quite three years since this play by contemporary playwright John Logan (no relation, by the way) premiered in New York, startling audiences with its portrayal of an artistic crisis in the life of the pathologically driven abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. Not that this play is some risky unknown—Red won the 2010 Tony for Best Drama, with Hollywood actor Alfred Molina (best known to some as Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2) playing the lead. As Rothko in 2010, Molina won the Tony for Best Actor.

But it's great to get to see this new production, directed by Clarence Brown stalwart John Sipes, here.

The drama plays out as a very animated dialogue between the late-middle-aged Rothko, at the peak of his ca. 1960 vogue, and a (fictional) young assistant named Ken. The main context is Rothko's famous challenge to decorate the walls of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York's iconically modernist Seagrams Building. At first in awe of the strutting, seething Rothko, Ken endures the master's profanity cheerfully, taking the legendary artist's advice, until he realizes he may have learned a few things the old man hasn't figured out yet.

The cast of two works athletically well. Michael Elich creates a physical, intellectually aggressive Rothko. A veteran actor most identified with his leading roles in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (he's also done some soap operas), Elich is appearing in Knoxville for the first time. (He worked with Sipes in Oregon.) Matt Leisy, a young, energetic, New York-based actor, appeals with a focused intensity as the kid eager to learn, and indulgent, if just up to a point, of Rothko's manias.

They're both challenging roles. The scene is a working artist's studio, so Ken actually does some real framing of real canvases, with real staples and nails. At one point, the two collaborate in priming an approximately 35-square-foot canvas (red, of course) with real paint, in the space of less than a minute. It's choreography.

It all happens in the versatile old Carousel, arranged this time in a more conventional format, with the audience on one side and the stage 0n another. Without an intermission, it takes just 90 minutes. It might seem a challenge to cover two years' time without an intermission, but it works.

Rothko didn't like to think of himself as a teacher, but the play is a pretty fair crash course on 20th-century art, from cubism to pop art, especially effective in explaining the role of the viewer as "companion." It may surprise some who know Rothko for his giant red squares and columns—seemingly the ultimate rejection of traditional figurative art—that he was a great admirer of the old masters, repeatedly referring to Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Goya. And that he despised many of his contemporaries, especially the pop artists: Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, who makes him want to spit. To Rothko, these were not "serious" artists, but comedians, whose success didn't bode well for the future of art. With Nietzsche as his guide, he believed his large canvases of red and black transcended cubism and surrealism to "pulsate" with life—which was essentially a tragedy.

He had contempt even for his own customers, whom he thought were "buying class, buying taste—it goes with the lamp, it's cheaper than a Pollack."

As we come to understand and respect Rothko, even when he's a bit of a jerk, assistant Ken keeps challenging him, and us, with fresh assumptions.

Maybe as an unintended result of the rebellions accomplished from different directions by abstract expressionism and pop art, visual art is diffused. Maybe many of Rothko's fans were pretentious, as he suspected, but in 2013 few even pretend to challenge themselves with difficult art. We've largely turned our back on what was once revered, even by people who didn't understand it. Rothko's ideals still fetches big prices, but are no longer imitated in lawyers' lobbies, or reproduced on the covers of popular magazines.

Obviously, though, we're still fascinated by the lives of modern artists. Even if we don't like Rothko and Pollack over our sofas, there's passion in their stories, and we're drawn to documentaries, movies, and plays about them.

At one point he gives his assistant a benediction to go out and make something new. The unaddressed issue hovering over the play is that it's hard to imagine what that might have been. If there were a sequel to this play—Red 2: the Story of Ken, perhaps—to dramatize the next major movement in art, say, after Rothko's suicide in 1970—well, what would it be?