Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Two-hander on Rothko a masterful play



Two-hander on Rothko a masterful play

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
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.

MOST VIEWED

  • Prince Norodom Ranariddh passes away at 77

    Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the second son of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and former First Prime Minister of Cambodia, has passed away in France at the age of 77. “Samdech Krom Preah Norodom Ranariddh has passed away this morning in France just after 9am Paris-time,”

  • Cambodia purchases 4 million Molnupiravir tablets

    Cambodia has arranged for the purchase of four million US-made Molnupiravir pills – enough to treat 100,000 Covid-19 patients – even though the current rate of daily infections in Cambodia remains low. The medicine will be distributed to state hospitals, pharmacies and private clinics, according to the Samdech

  • Rise in planned flights lifts travel hopes

    Six airlines have applied to resume flights in December, while two others have put in for additional flights and routes, according to State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) head Mao Havannall on November 29. These account for 43 new weekly domestic and international flights in December, up 16

  • Is Cambodia’s travel sector in for another cheerless holiday season?

    The travel and tourism sector was heaving back to life as borders started to reopen, promising a festive vibe for the holidays and New Year. But Omicron and other Covid-related issues are threatening to close the year on a bleak note ‘Seems [like] Covid-19 won’

  • Cambodia planning new border checkpoint at Thma Da

    Cambodia is looking into the possibility of opening a new Thma Da Border Checkpoint with Thailand to boost trade and tourism. The Ministry of Public Works and Transport said on December 4 that Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol led a technical working group

  • No more Africa travel ban but new rules for arrivals

    The Ministry of Health has decided to lift the ban on travellers from or who have travelled through 10 African countries and instead issued a set of standard operating procedures to manage passenger arrivals at Cambodia’s international airports. The 10 African countries are Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho,