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'Red' paints portrait of a difficult man, brilliant artist
Cast: Thom Christopher and Jordan Coughtry
Playwright: John Logan
Director: Joseph Discher
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
When: Opens Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 17
Where: Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, , University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, 3955 Regent Circle
Tickets: $35, $15 kids 15 and under, free UCCS students; 255-3232, theatreworkscs.org
Editor's note: Due to a cast change announced Jan. 29, the role of Mark Rothko will now be played by Joel Leffert.
Mark Rothko knew exactly what he wanted his abstract paintings to do.
“I am here to stop your heart. I’m not here to make pretty pictures.”
These are words straight from the artist's mouth and appear in the Tony Award-winning play, "Red." Academy Award-nominated screenwriter John Logan (“Gladiator” and “The Aviator") diligently researched the abstract painter, who studied with a 19th century groundbreaker, painter Henri Matisse, before writing "Red."
In fact, Logan used direct quotes from "Mark Rothko: A Biography," a 700-page book by James E.B. Breslin, as dialogue in the play, said Thom Christopher, who stars as Rothko in the new TheatreWorks show. It opens on Thursday with a New York City-based cast and director.
"Red" premiered in London in 2009 and starred Alfred Molina in the role of Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his young assistant Ken. The two-person play became such a hot commodity that the entire production -- cast and crew included -- was transported directly to Broadway in March 2010.
New York Times critic Ben Brantley calls it "a portrait of an angry and brilliant mind that asks you to feel the shape and texture of thoughts.
"It’s risky these days to play someone who speaks in grand statements and capital letters about Art and Immortality," he wrote in April 2010 review. "We’ve become accustomed to the safe distance of winking quotation marks. But when this Rothko says there is “tragedy in every brush stroke” of his work, we believe him. The fear and hubris that never leave his eyes as he looks at his big but so vulnerable paintings guarantees that."
The play went on to win six Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Actor for Redmayne and Best Director for Michael Grandage.
Christopher knew of Rothko and had seen some of his works, but not enough to play the role. He quickly immersed himself in the history of Rothko and studied his art: paintings with thick layers of vibrant colors in block shapes. Though he is categorized as an abstract expressionist, he actively rejected the label.
"You can almost hear the paintings: the pain, tragedy, help," Christopher says. "Though they're not joyous, none of them are. He could not separate himself in any way from his art. The play brings that out. They are one. The symbiosis is incredible."
In 90 minutes, the audience will watch the Russian-born Rothko, one of the great artists, painters of the 20th century, at a pivotal point in his career.
It's 1958 in New York City, and Rothko has just been commissioned to paint a series of murals for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building in New York. Now known as the Seagram murals, it was the most prestigious project awarded to an abstract expressionist painter at that time.
He is at work in his studio, when Ken, who is an artist in his own right, arrives. Rothko immediately confronts him about the importance of art in life, and, most notably, how Rothko's work fits into the grand scheme of things. The play is part lecture, part philosophical discussion.
"Emotions versus intellect, old versus new, order versus chaos and art versus commercialism," says director Joseph Discher.
Though Ken is a fictitious character, Rothko did have several real-life assistants. The on-stage relationship between Rothko and Ken is rife with discussion, heated debate, full-on arguing and a dense scene where the two attack a canvas with paint.
"At first, Ken is walking into a situation that he doesn’t understand. He's working with the most important person in his field, and it's daunting, exciting," Discher said. "He struggles for significance between him and Rothko. The artist puts him through his paces and makes him earn his right to be a part of what’s going on."
There is a generally acknowledged perception of Rothko, who committed suicide in 1970 at the age of 66. While he is universally revered for his work, he was known for being neurotic, unlikeable and an egomaniacal bully.
"He struggled a lot and felt like an outsider," Discher says. "He struggled to be recognized as an artist, but at the same time, also didn’t like the attention. He had to become an egomaniac to protect against criticism in the artistic world. He wanted to realize something internal in his paintings and I think he did that."
There is more to the play than an exploration of Rothko's ascerbic nature. At the conclusion, you will not only leave with a deeper understanding of the artist, but perhaps empathy for the man as well.
"Rothko wants his work to be seen and be recognized and be understood. He wants them to have some meaning," says Discher. "We as humans want that, too. We want what we do to be significant in some way. We understand that about him and we understand that about ourselves."