Within the first five minutes of John Logan’s 2010 Tony Award winning masterpiece “RED,” abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko implores his newly acquired assistant Ken to read “The Birth of Tragedy,” Friedrich Nietzsche’s commentary on dramatic theory proclaiming, “one can’t discuss anything without it.” However, in my effort to describe my experience with this piece, and the necessary confrontation of Rothko’s enduring works, I find myself returning, time and time again, to another of Nietzsche’s well-known compositions, “Beyond Good and Evil”:
“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
Live performance has been a constant in my life as early as I can remember, from church plays and high school musicals, to collegiate think-pieces and community entertainments. Since being granted my first opportunity to participate in a Weathervane Playhouse production about this time a year ago, my eyes have been opened to new and exciting possibilities in the theatrical realm, including the chance to bring to life this truly powerful portrait of an artist, the world he creates, and the tragedy that shapes him.
Over the years, as a performer, I have consistently gravitated toward the genre of musical comedy. The instant gratification provided by an audience’s reaction to a well-coordinated tap dancing routine or a sweeping love ballad is a singularly unique feeling, and supplying theatre-goers with a humorous distraction from the rigors of daily life is supremely satisfying. No doubt growing up in a family that produces its own music fed the inclination as well, but the rush of adrenaline supplied by a full-house’s laughter and applause is what has brought me back for more.
And yet, throughout “RED,” there are no ballads. There are no dance routines, tap or otherwise, to infuse a scene with energy and excitement. Here, the actor’s only recourse is to connect to the audience through sincerity. Where comedies and musicals push out to an audience with spectacle, this story pulls its audience in by means of emotional connection.
While studying the man who was Mark Rothko, and coming to terms with his sensibilities (both artistic and philosophical) it became evident that this project would not allow for shallow dives into the realm of understanding. In order to successfully grapple with Rothko, I would be required to grapple with my own life in ways that a show like “Guys and Dolls” does not demand.
Ken, Rothko’s assistant and the character I am tasked with portraying, has faced tragedy in his short life– possibly much more than is thrust upon most of us. In order to learn about the world, to become a true artist, Rothko believes Ken should face his tragedy head-on. Emulating his employer, Ken begins to truly understand the power of Rothko’s color-fields. It was in this portrayal that I began to feel it myself.
Expressionist art, though the source of much derision, is immensely powerful. Accept it, work with it, and it can help you recall the happiest day of your life, or it can deftly dig at old wounds not yet healed. In either instance, it brings a greater understanding of yourself and the moments that shape who you are.
These revelations are exhilarating, especially to an actor– someone who makes it their goal to draw on their own experiences to inhabit the lives of others. Such exhilaration can become addictive. The truths that seemingly simple pictures can pull out of each of us are fascinating beyond accurate description; yet, it is in this fascination that they become a double-edged sword. The fascination, when it gives way to obsession, lowers our defenses to combat unpleasantness, and has the ability to insert our most formative, tragic memories into everything we see. The abyss, unchecked, gazes into the viewer, withdrawing his or her most zealously guarded thoughts and feelings.
It is this line, between tangentially connecting with Rothko’s art and its effect on our emotions and surrendering in full to the abyss and its savagery, which must be courted to provide an accurate portrayal of these men and this masterpiece of modern drama. In a way, being constantly surrounded by Rothko’s color-fields makes the task of genuinely connecting to a character’s emotions far less daunting. It is my feeling, and my hope, that it will provide many avenues by which audiences will connect emotionally to the performance, whether through catharsis or revelation.
I know from my time spent with “RED” how easily it can pull you in. The difficulty I fear, however, will be finding my way out.
- Thursday — Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m.
- Friday — Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m.
- Saturday — Nov. 12 at 3:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
For tickets, please visit www.weathervaneplayhouse.com or call 330.836.2626.
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