MILWAUKEE - The scene opens as we observe Mark Rothko contemplating his latest abstract expressionist paintings. He is diligently working on a series of them for the upscale Four Seasons restaurant, designed by the prestigious architect Mies van der Rohe’s for his Seagram Building, presently under construction. Rothko has received a commission of $35,000, a hefty sum in 1958 when the building was completed and his paintings were installed.
We also meet Ken, his newly-hired assistant and budding artist himself, who has been asked to view Rothko’s work and respond to a request which puts the young man in an awkward position. Rothko has already achieved ample notice and fame and is unlikely to want an honest opinion, especially from a novice. The two men are staring at paintings as they break the Fourth Wall. Their faces hint at their assessments of what they’re seeing and we try to guess what they’re thinking.
As the play proceeds, a 90-minute dialogue (often a Rothko monologue), we get to know these two men, including something about their individual histories. We discover that Rothko is troubled, self-absorbed and self-impressed, but also frightened that his style of painting will soon be passe, overtaken by some of the modernists such as Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol popularizing ‘Pop Art.’
He treats Ken as a lackey, hired to do the grunt work, including running errands to secure food, cigarettes and coffee for his ‘master.’ He is not the slightly bit interested in getting to know Ken and what he is about and up to in his pursuit of becoming an artist.
Despite his so-called genius as an original colorist painter, he is not exactly a man one could warm up to and admire as a person. He is crusty, often disdainful of owners of art galleries and patrons who want to acquire his works (even though he needs their support), and hypercritical of those who are trying to explore new forms of artistic expression.
He even takes a few shots at his successful contemporaries, such as Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning. He is a mix of contrasts - condescending and an air of superiority with a goodly dose of insecurity.
One of the most intense scenes in the play is the one where Ken confronts the blustery Rothko and gives him an assessment not only of his art but of his character as well. Ken finally erupts, and Rothko is forced to listen for a change.
Bo Johnson as Rothko and Mohammed N. ElBsat as Ken are both impressive actors with long resumes of stellar work. It is a joy to watch them re-create these characters.
I also liked the set props and lighting design by Carol Zippel and Corrie Tritz respectively. We got the flavor of Rothko’s work without having his actual paintings to observe. By the end we grew to understand the man and his goals; his accomplishments as well as his frustrations. We also learned what a challenge it would be to work for a man with such an inflated ego, lack of empathy, and distorted perspective.
The play runs through Saturday at Windfall Theatre in the little white church on 130 E. Juneau Ave. Call 414-332-3963 or visit www.windfalltheatre.com.