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Two-hander on Rothko a masterful play

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Tom Pearson plays Rothko’s assistant Ken. Kimberley McCosker

Two-hander on Rothko a masterful play

The Phnom Penh Players’ production of Tony Award-winning play Red provides an artful exploration of the legendary American expressionist in a two-man performance

The Phnom Penh Players’ intellectual tale of artistic agony is set to close tonight after a successful two-week run that has left audience members’ minds intriguingly bent.

Red, which won the Tony Award in 2010 for Best Play, will leave art enthusiasts entertained and the philosophically inclined satisfied with its rich dive into the mind of one of the 20th century’s most cherished abstract painters.

With its passionately immersed cast and intense dialogue, it will likely leave audiences wishing they could watch it again for a second attempt to digest the substance of this cerebral drama.

The play is based on painter Mark Rothko’s life in the late 1950s.

Best known for his abstract paintings featuring huge adjacent bars of varying colour shades, the real-life artist was awarded the world’s largest art commission (as of 1958) to paint the interior of the Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan.

He eventually decided that such a luxurious restaurant, home to power lunches for New York’s ruling class, would be an inappropriate place to display his art.

Reportedly, he told an acquaintance that he wanted to make the diners “feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall”.

Already concerned that collectors were buying his paintings out of fleeting fashion rather than sincere appreciation, he returned the commission.

Red explores the artist at this point in his life through his relationship with his fictional assistant Ken.

Demented both by his concerns over the Four Seasons commission and his resentment of the rise of pop artists like Andy Warhol, the artist uses Ken as a vent for all he sees wrong in the world.

The play opens with Ken’s first day on the job. He is meek at first, eager to please his abusive boss with the hopes of impressing him with his own paintings. But as the play evolves, Ken increasingly becomes a foil to the solipsistic artist.

True to the play’s philosophical nature, the chemistry between the two men has an intentionally Nietzschean bent.

Toward the beginning, Rothko chides Ken for never having read the writings of the 19th-century German philosopher.

He cites The Birth of Tragedy – Friedrich Nietzsche’s first published book – as a particularly important text for an artist to read.

As hinted in the dialogue, the play mimics elements of the Apollonian and Dionysian formula that Nietzsche identified as central to Greek tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy: the Apollonian is rational and analytical, while the Dionysian is emotional and instinctive. Nietzsche believed that true tragedy could only be produced by the tension between these two opposing forces.

While Red isn’t a tragedy, traits of the two Greek gods are fused together in the supposed style of the ancient playwrights. Ken is the logical Apollonian, while Rothko is the impulsive Dionysian.

The acting itself is a high watermark for the Phnom Penh Players. Paul de Havilland (Rothko) effectively encompasses the persona of the self-obsessed artist. His seemingly authentic New York accent is all the more remarkable given that he is Australian.

Tom Pearson (Ken) also impresses as his character evolves over a two-year period from a passive fan struck by the presence of a genius to a headstrong critic of the antihero’s dynamic but ultimately
self-destructive mind – Rothko’s eventual suicide is hinted at in the dialogue.

The show’s centrepiece is Rothko’s ego, which both actors respond to masterly.

That ego is best represented through an unsettling monologue toward the end that serves as one of the show’s most memorable moments.

“Conflicted, nuanced, troubled, diseased, doomed!” exclaims Rothko at the end of the speech.

“I am not fine, we are not fine, we are anything but fine!”

Red will be performed tonight at Le Grand Palais, #16 Street 130 at 7pm.

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