Launching a play about Mark Rothko at the same moment that the art museum is hosting Portland's first Rothko retrospective is a strike of cross-promotional brilliance. By all accounts, the Portland Art Museum exhibit is great. Unfortunately, Portland Center Stage's production of John Logan's Red is a tedious, bombastic affair—second-rate art about a first-rate artist.
The entirety of Red takes place in Mark Rothko's studio in the 1950s, as Rothko (Daniel Benzali) paces and pontificates and grapples with art making—mostly aloud, to his assistant Ken (Patrick Alparone). Rothko was reportedly a long-winded sort of a dude, so no fault can be found with playwright John Logan for portraying him as such. Where Logan is on the hook, though, is for creating the character of Rothko's assistant, who serves the excruciatingly schematic function of reminding the audiences that even as every artist must kill their idols, so must they be killed. Ken is a stiff kid who shows up for his first day in the studio wearing a suit and tie (just like Matt Saracen! I don't care if no one gets that reference). Logan sets his short play over a two-year span, during which time Ken transforms from an awkward, distant boy to confident young artist prepared to challenge the legendary Rothko on his own terms. But Ken might as well be portrayed by a different actor in each scene, so disconnected are the pieces of his character.
That the show is disjointed and difficult to connect with is no fault of the set design: In a nod to the legendary vibrance of Rothko's work, canvases stacked against the wall seem to change according to the light—creating the impression that the men are surrounded by slumbering animals that could come to life at any moment. Rothko speaks of his paintings as though they're living things—fragile creatures that have never been hurt until he sends them out into the world. And, it so happens, he's about to send a whole bunch of 'em into a hostile place indeed: The dining room at the Four Seasons, where Rothko has been paid a tidy sum to provide a mural. And why would an artist as dedicated to beauty and honesty as Rothko subject his art to such a crassly commercial setting? In posing this question, Red feels like a joke with a too-long setup—the punchline comes with an anticlimactic wheeze.