Art can get under your skin, drive you to extremes, bring you to think things you might rather leave unthought. It’s tough, serious business. But then, it can also set your analytical brain to rest and create an entirely different world where the laws of gravity don’t apply and where spirits rule the night.
What am I going on about? Why, Mark Rothko and the bio-drama Red, on the one hand, and Giselle on the other.
Red, Portland Center Stage: This morning John Logan is undoubtedly celebrating the Oscars Rango and Hugo won last night — he wrote the screenplays for both of them, after all. But he also did a lot of celebrating with Red, which won Tony, Drama Desk, Drama League and Outer Critic Circle awards after it was first produced in London in 2009. I’m surprised he has energy left after all that partying!
It’s hard to believe the same guy wrote both scripts. Red couldn’t be more serious and intense, a deep, long look at an artist wrestling with himself, the universe and his first great commission. Oh, and his gallery assistant, who represents the changing of the guard. And yes, that artist is Mark Rothko, who attempted the impossible — to make art that severs all connections to the real world, but still has a very real effect on the humans in that world: “I am here to stop your heart,” Logan has him say. “I’m not here to make pretty pictures.”
Like Rothko’s art, it’s a deceptively simple play. One act, four scenes or so, two actors, and reproductions of the paintings that Rothko made for the Four Seasons restaurant commission in various states of completion. Rothko and Ken, the assistant, mostly talk, though Ken sometimes stretches a bit of canvas and together the two lay on the first coat of red paint on a fresh canvas. They do it swiftly, and the audience on opening night applauded!
I hesitate to use the word “red.” One of the best scenes in the play is a repudiation of that simple word by Rothko and a spew of possible replacements first by Rothko and then by Ken. In describing possible interpretations of “red,” they get down to the red seeping to the top of the Barbasol shaving cream from a shaving nick. Blood, of course.
Daniel Benzali makes a magisterial Rothko, one moment imagining himself in the company of Rembrandt, the next worried about the crop of Pop artists who are about to “take down” Abstract Expressionism, the tiny mammals scurrying to replace the dinosaurs, certain of himself and tormented, grandiose and practical. Somehow he makes standing in front of an imaginary canvas exciting.
Patrick Alparone as the gallery assistant makes a fine foil, slender and quick, finally moved to fight back against the Imperium inside the studio, and maybe Rothko teaches him that the future is his.
Mark Rothko, Portland Art Museum: Would Red be quite so interesting if the art museum hadn’t just opened an exhibition of his work? And conversely, would the exhibition have the same effect without the play? Probably not. For the first time Portlanders have a chance to see the range of Rothko’s work, from his early days through his brush with surrealism and then on to the floating rectangles of color that made him famous. The paintings give us an instant point of reference for Rothko’s speeches about his art in Red, but those speeches go a long way toward explaining what Rothko’s floating rectangles are all about.
Do Rothko’s paintings change your emotional weather? Well, that’s a subjective question, isn’t it? Are we human enough to “understand” them, which is the challenge of Rothko in the play? I’m not sure that’s a fair question. But I love that art can drop us in the middle of unfair questions, and unanswerable ones, too.
On Sunday afternoon, a week after the opening, the gallery at the art museum was full of people wrestling with them, sometimes perplexed and sometimes in reverie. Either response makes perfect sense.
I’ll be discussing Rothko, Red and this show at much greater length at Oregon Arts Watch later in the week, if you want to dig a little deeper into this whole Rothko business. He did live in Portland for a time as an adolescent before heading east for fame and fortune, after all.
Giselle, Oregon Ballet Theatre: Yes, it was a busy weekend in Portland, thank you very much. With modern art on my mind, I wasn’t sure how well primed I would be for a story ballet of the Romantic Era, no matter how lovingly it was staged by Lola de Avila for Oregon Ballet Theatre.
I shouldn’t have worried! This Giselle was a fine counterpoint to Rothko, actually. The sets and costumes were glorious, the dancers in fine form, the story clearly told, the music played with dash and then pathos by the OBT orchestra led by Niel DePonte. I found it impossible to leave without a smile on my face.
Now, some of that, admittedly, is because I have a hard time suppressing certain thoughts during a story ballet. For example, in Giselle, how can the peasants in Act I dance around so happily, when they know that the ghosts of jilted maidens who’ve died before they could marry are lying in wait for them, ready to dance them into oblivion, especially the male ones who happen to wander into the cemetery? Personally, I wouldn’t be partnering with a smile on my face if I knew the Wilis could come and get me later that night.
Then I remind myself that it’s a fairy tale, and return to the visions on stage. Many of them on opening night were supplied by Haiyan Wu as Giselle, so light and graceful, and seemingly so fragile, yet when she’s tested by complicated pointe work or demanding phrases, she tosses them off effortlessly, inviting you into the story, encouraging you to set aside your analytical thoughts about the real world and join hers, where beautiful girls die of broken hearts and Wilis take their revenge on the perpetrators.
Chauncey Parsons, as Albrecht, the nobleman who falls for Giselle, though he’s betrothed to the daughter of the Prince of Courtland, partners her with the same lightness and strength. They seem made for each other. But we could go on and on about the dancing, which continues to get better and better at OBT, so good that the dancers can overcome the reluctance of a crusty old cynic to follow their fairy tale along to the end.