FULLER BRUSH MEN: Painter Mark Rothko (Randall King, right) spends much of 'Red' confronting aesthetic dilemmas with the help of his assistant, Ken (Aaron Wilton).
When standing before a Mark Rothko painting, you may find yourself absorbed in the expansive canvas; or, exasperated, you may mutter “a third-grader could have painted this.” This dichotomy only adds to the mystique of the artist and his work, which is the subject of John Logan’s Red, now at San Jose Stage, where the company’s artistic director, Randall King, plays the great abstract painter, a role filled by Alfred Molina in the play’s acclaimed West End and Broadway runs.
Here, the visage of Rothko, bald and slouching in his ill-fitting, paint-spattered clothes, is onstage before the show even starts. He gazes intently at his paintings; specifically, the Seagram Murals, the vivid set of pictures he designed for the Four Seasons Restaurant. You wonder what he’s thinking, what the great swaths of red and black mean to him. By the play’s end, you’ll be thinking about what they mean to you.
Red details Rothko’s relationship with fictional assistant Ken. This character, played by Aaron Wilton, serves as an audience surrogate and a foil for his employer, though he has a not-uninteresting backstory of his own. The pair’s interactions show Rothko as arrogant and capricious—and so angry that his serious approach is becoming anachronistic in the Pop Art era of comic books and Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. Through his bitterness, however, shines a touching parental concern for his paintings.