ART REVIEW by Alec Clayton for OLY ARTS

John Logan’s dramatic two-man show Red at Olympia Little Theatre is engaging, intelligent and highly intense. It is a tour de force for actors Christopher Valcho as the painter Mark Rothko and John Tuttle-Gates as his studio assistant, Ken, and for director Jim Patrick.

At an hour and a half with no intermission, this verbal sparring match between Rothko and Ken takes place entirely in Rothko’s painting studio over a period of two years as the painter works on the largest commission of his career, 600 square feet of paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York.

Ken is a newly hired studio assistant. As Tuttle-Gates portrays him, Ken is at first enamored of Rothko, a hero of the Abstract Expressionist movement. The audience sees him cowering, afraid to speak, but gradually he becomes stronger, surer of himself; and he confronts the volatile artist. Tuttle displays subtle acting skills as he portrays the young man’s gradual transformation from a fearful idol worshiper to a man with a mind of his own — and strong opinions about art that clash with Rothko’s ideas.

Valcho portrays the artist as pompous, grandiloquent, autocratic, proud and abusive. As he paces the studio making sometimes outlandish pronouncements about art and life, the audience gets a peek into the inner workings of this complex and troubled artist’s mind.

To the Abstract Expressionists, art was a baring of one’s soul. They believed in and perpetuated the myth of the artist as a troubled genius. As per example, at one point in the play, Rothko talks about Jackson Pollock’s suicide as a heroic act and he inadvertently slips in a word about his own pending suicide, which he quickly backtracks, insisting he didn’t say it and Ken must have misheard. Rothko did commit suicide a decade later in 1970.

There is brilliant dialogue that will ring true to anyone who knows the history of modern art, such as the scene wherein Ken berates Rothko for his disdain to the new, young artists, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, saying that just as Rothko’s generation had been the dogs that respected and admired Matisse and Picasso but had to kill them off, Stella and his contemporaries were the new dogs that were killing off Rothko and the Abstract Expressionists.

Throughout the play, the two look at and talk about paintings the audience can’t see, but finally they hang up a blank canvas and the two of them together prime it with bright red paint in choreographed movement as a Mozart sonata plays on Rothko’s turntable. It is an exciting and uplifting moment.

In real life, Rothko broke his agreement and never delivered the paintings. There is a slightly different and quite satisfying ending to the play.





Olympia Little Theatre

1925 Miller Ave NE, Olympia


7:25 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1:55 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 20-30