REVIEW: What you see in RED is more than what it is

The Necessary Theater's re-staging of RED offers an exploration of the complex life and vision of Mark Rothko.
Orly Agawin

The Necessary Theater's return to the stage doesn't disappoint. Here, Director Bart Guingona takes his audiences into a world where striking visuals and powerful imagery collide, captivating senses and igniting imaginations. Yet, amid this aesthetics, the earnest sense of reflection and awareness sets this rendition a class on its own. The Necessary Theater's 2023 staging of John Logan's RED offers a warm and welcoming salute to the power of introspection, artistic discourse, and silent reflection.

The Plot

It is 1958, and renowned abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko finds himself facing a rare opportunity—the chance to create an artistic masterpiece that will forever shape the landscape of modern art. With the weight of this task on his shoulders, Rothko immerses himself in a whirlwind of artistic fervor, grappling with his own insecurities while striving to forge a body of work. Along the way, he enlists the assistance of Ken, a young and aspiring artist. As the two delve into the realm of artistry, engaging from rare casual conversations to fiery debates, their collaboration becomes a pronounced exploration of themes encompassing commercialism, creation, decadence, and the expansive boundaries that constitutes art.

Directing RED

Guingona paints a tableau that melds with Logan's themes and character relationships. With careful attention to space and rhythm, he wields the PETA Theater platform by strategically distancing the two characters within its confines to convey the initial sense of imbalance and discomfort. Through subtle blocks, he choreographs a delicate duet of courtesy, where each episode draws the two closer to establish eventual familiarity and nuanced rapport.

This technique makes this re-staging of RED seem like a vivid, moving canvas where the dynamic interplay of space and themes pervade Logan's narratives with visual resonance.

The Duet

Guingona, who also plays Rothko, conveys the artist's internal conflicts as he grapples with the realization that his commission to paint murals for a lavish restaurant is a betrayal of his artistic ideals. With nuanced depth, Guingona's Rothko echoes the sentiments expressed by art critic Robert Hughes, who argued that the more Rothko criticized the art world, the more it elevated him, ultimately leading to a sense of failure that drowns him along the way. Guingona's layered performance, reminiscent of Rothko's canvasses, showcases the complexity of emotions and the exhaustive preparation that culminates in a poignant exploration of artistic integrity and personal struggle.

JC Santos's captures Ken's transformative journey from a novice assistant to a formidable challenger. Like the audience, Ken enters Rothko's eccentric world of art and creation, transforming through years of learning from the master and trying to understand the complexities of art from a narcissistic mentor. Santos's Ken comes to the stage early on with vibrant eagerness and blissful innocence, gradually gaining confidence as his familiarity with a desired father figure develops.

Creating and Interpreting Art

RED compels in its portrayal of the life and idealisms of Mark Rothko (1903-1970), an influential Abstract Expressionist painter. Through Logan's narrative, the material prompts audiences to reflect on prevailing societal pragmatism and environmental insensitivities.

Rothko, the central figure, strives to challenge conventional ways of perceiving and interpreting artwork to evoke profound emotional responses and foster a more immersive artistic encounter. Meanwhile, his assistant, Ken, embarks on a quest for a deeper understanding of the creative process, pushing boundaries and exploring innovative avenues for artistic expression and growth.

What makes this staging such a riveting watch is how it embraces certain tasks, such as constructing a large format frame and applying red paint on a canvas. This act stimulates the senses, breaking the theatrical illusion and allowing the viewers to dive deep into an avalanche of meaning, process, and awareness.

By doing so, Logan's play about a narcissistic artist overcomes the difficulty of having an artist as a character who preaches but does nothing. Here, Logan presents Rothko as someone whose ideas are inseparable from art, partly because the tensions are within the works themselves.

Thus, RED triumphs by reminding us that creation is still a job at the end of the day. Here, we see paints and colors mixed, nails hammered into wooden frames, and canvasses raised and lowered by pulleys. And it doesn't stop there. In another sequence, Rothko and Ken prime a blank canvas by creating a base. As the two men splash on the paint, we share the physical exhilaration of initiating a piece of art.

This moment in the play compensates for Logan's overemphasis on Rothko's perception of art as a burdensome vocation and his seemingly ruthless detachment from the world outside his studio. He shows no interest in Ken as a person and even perceives the young man's tragedy as a creative inspiration. While some may find this odd, or worse - insensitive, it provides a compelling depiction of the artist as a visionary dedicated only to his craft.

Examining the Core

But what really hit me is that amidst the overflow of wisdom and avalanche of insights is the deep sense of emptiness in Rothko. See, in 1968, even after being diagnosed with an aneurysm; he continued to drink and smoke heavily. His doctor soon described him as "highly nervous, thin, (and) restless." On New Year's Day in 1969, he and his wife of 26 years separated, making him move to his studio.

It is essential to recognize the difficulties people - like Rothko - face in reconciling external success and internal realities. Despite their achievements and widespread adoration, they grapple with a tragic feeling of emptiness, loneliness, and turmoil. The pressure of fame, combined with personal challenges and underlying health issues, create a dissonance between their public personas and private struggles.

On February 25, 1970, Rothko's assistant found him lying dead on the kitchen floor. Covered in blood, it was soon discovered that he had cut his wrist and overdosed on barbiturates.

He was 66.


The Necessary Theater's re-staging of RED offers an exploration of the complex life and vision of Mark Rothko. Through Guingona's brush, he paints a theatrical canvas that invites audiences to an exercise of introspection and artistic discourse. With striking visuals and generous performances, this rendition contemplates the tension between external success and inner truths. It is a poignant reminder that even celebrated figures like Rothko can grapple with emptiness and turmoil despite widespread acclaim and artistic achievement.

Thus, seeing RED soon becomes a proof of the enduring power of art and its impact on both the creator and the viewer.

So, what do you see?

Photos courtesy of Mr. Axl Guinto of Axl PowerHouse

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