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December 22, 2014
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What do you see? Red, the warmest colour

Gerardo Otero and Julio Chávez in a scene from John Logan’s Red.
By Julio Nakamurakare
Herald Staff

Julio Chávez stars in Mark Rothko biodrama which challenges perceptual concepts

“There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend... One day the black will swallow the red.”

—Mark Rothko

One of the most powerful, striking scenes in John Logan’s play Red — about the last years of Russian-US abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko — sees him frantically priming a canvas a deux with his new assistant-apprentice. It’s a scene worth taking in for its primeval force and for the sheer sense of determination of Rothko and his new assistant Ken, both bent on beating an unlikely takeover from a world run by forces devoid of colour.

Colour, at this mid to late stage in Rothko’s productive years, had only one manifestation: red, maroon perhaps, with a touch of dark brown, but never a radiant hue, as used to be the case with his previous works, all showing a progression of vivid, contagious optimism, best expressed through almost symmetrical blocks of solid colours.

The structure of Logan’s play is conventional, too conventional perhaps to keep viewers wondering what will be next in this story about Mark Rothko, a bitter if successful artist and his soliloquy-dialogue with an aspiring artist he takes in to help him around the atelier moving frames, priming canvasses, adding colour to an oil-based paint, running errands and, most importantly, lending an ear to his barrage of angry tirades against the art world, critics, collectors, and the demi monde he declares to despise but whose praise he has secretly coveted for years.

As is usually the norm, once success is achieved there’s no reason to knock on people’s doors asking for a pittance. In Rothko’s case, it’s exactly the other way round: a huge company like Seagram has come a-knockin’ with an absurdly, ridiculously expensive commission: 350,000 dollars for a series of murals for permanent exhibition at the soon-to-be-inaugurated Four Seasons Hotel.

As Red opens, Rothko (Julio Chávez) is in his New York studio in 1958-9, working on the Seagram commission with Ken, his new assistant (Gerardo Otero, a young performer trained at Claudio Tolcachir’s actors’ school). Rothko yells and orders Ken about, ranting about everything as he mixes colours and splatters canvases. Ken, shy and timid on the surface, brashly questions Rothko’s theories of art and his acceding to work on such a commercial project.

An act of defiance and acceptance at once, Rothko tackled the Seagram challenge and in three months he finished forty paintings — three full series in dark red and brown, modifying his horizontal format to vertical in line with the restaurant’s vertical lines. From an ideological viewpoint, Rothko’s Four Season’s paintings were positioned right in the centre of an architectural symbol of capitalism. Known for his communist ideology, Rothko led a bourgeois life typical of the average US citizen, but his art reflected his concern with the relation between man, art and his time.

John Logan, a successful screenwriter and playwright, has been lauded and derided for Red’s oversimplification and randomly thrown in if never fully explained cultural references. However, not much more should be expected from Red than what is actually offered on stage. That is, just a predictable game of opposites that eventually exposes the real affinities between two feuding characters.

‘What do you see?‘ Rothko defiantly asks Ken, both men squinting to see and fully appreciate an artwork invisible to the audience. Rothko does know whatever there is to see, supposedly. Ken doesn’t, or so he will have the master believe.

Just as Ken is youthful, inexperienced and full of hope for his own future and for the world’s apprehension of art, Rothko is acidly mordant and irate, full of disdain for critics who, once and again, compare his art with Jackson Pollock’s and Roy Lichtenstein’s and, adding insult to injury, the ascending, media-savvy and media-hyped commercial illustrator turned pop art master Andy Warhol. Pollock and Lichtenstein Rothko could probably accept, but not the irreverent, insolent Warhol.

And just as Rothko will take on everyone and everything not to his liking, so will the apparently innocent Ken retort that, nope, he has not read Nietzsche, nor is he familiar with the basics of his writings and teachings. In Rothko’s view, there’s no way you can aspire to be an artist if you haven’t read and fully grasped your Nietzsche. That is, Nietzsche’s discussion of the polarity between an Apollonian and a Dionysian principle in the arts and in life itself. Ken finally does read his Nietzsche, but no sooner is he done with this gruesome task than off he is sent by Rothko, who fires him for some inane reason. It’s the one and only instance in their brief, intense sparring session in which Rothko divests his persona of any hint of selfishness and tells the young man to do what’s best for him: go out and see the world for himself, not through the eyes of someone supposed to be a master but who, deep inside, has been laughing at himself and the bourgeoisie all the time.

Driving Mr. Chávez’s exacting performance to unnerving limits, Ken (fittingly played by a self-effacing, then self-asserting Gerardo Otero), progresses from suave, innocent apprentice to uncannily witty contender. Mr. Chávez, whose latest turn as gay lawyer Guillermo Graziani on TV’s Farsantes has earned him praise and disapproval in equal measure, makes Red all his own to the point of overshadowing Daniel Barone’s direction and the production’s beautiful set and lighting design (Jorge Ferrari and Eli Sirlin, respectively). Some actors have this thing about them, the capacity to eclipse other equally endowed artists as though their work were simply at the service of a gifted headliner’s lustre.

During the phase illustrated by Logan, red was Mark Rothko’s colour of choice, assigning to it the magical capacity to prevent and undo all wrong, while black was the representation of everything ominously dangerous and lethal. As Rothko’s alter ego, Mr. Chávez splashes red all over, an intense hue which audiences, unable to fathom the veracity of Logan’s written portrayal and the actor’s re-enacted likeness, must forcibly take as the real thing, regardless of their own perceptual constructions.

Where & When

Red. Written by John Logan. Translated by Fernando Masllorens and Fe-derico González Del Pino. Directed by: Daniel Barone. With: Julio Chávez, Ge-rardo Otero. Acting coach: Lili Popovich. Costumes: Mini Zuccheri. Painting adviser: Gachi Hasper.

At Paseo La Plaza, Av. Corrientes 1660. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 8.30pm. Friday and Saturday at 8pm and 10pm.

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