Visionary 20th-century artist Mark Rothko once claimed, “Art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can only be explored by those willing to take the risk,” in a letter to the New York Times written with artist Adolph Gottlieb. Indeed, American playwright John Logan’s “Red” (2009), which is being performed on Balch Arena Theater by 3Ps (Pen, Paint, and Pretzels) tonight through Saturday, provides an intense view of exactly what that risk costs. Starring a two-man cast of Josh Gitta as Rothko and James Williamson as Ken, his young assistant, “Red” is as sparse and unsparing as the painter himself.
The play is set in Rothko’s New York studio in 1958. He has just been offered the biggest commission of his career: a set of large murals for the Seagram Company to hang in the new Four Seasons restaurant on Park Avenue. He paints them in deep browns and reds, for which the play is named. As they work to complete the murals, Rothko constantly exhorts Ken to understand what truly makes a work of art and belittles him when he does not match his own lofty conceptions. As Ken builds up the courage to stand up to him, Rothko slowly comes to a reckoning of his own.
For Gitta, a senior, stepping into the esoteric and convoluted mind of the artist was no easy task.
“I read a lot of his writings and watched documentaries,” Gitta said.
A portion of the play’s dialogue is drawn from the painter’s real quotes and writings. Initially, Gitta found difficulty locating exactly who the character was behind the constant train of historical, literary and philosophical references peppered throughout Rothko’s dialogue. Soon, however, with the help of Associate Professor of Drama & Dance Noe Montez, he drew inspiration from his own heritage.
“We’re pretty sure that from all the productions [of ‘Red’] we’ve seen, this is the first time the roles have been played by two black men,” Gitta said.
Tapping into their own history, both Gitta and Williamson found parallels to the contemporary black experience in the United States in Rothko’s life as a Russian immigrant.
“There’s one scene where Rothko says to Ken, ‘Be civilized,’ and he’s constantly comparing himself to all these dead white guys,” Gitta explained. “We wanted to combine the history of Mark Rothko with the pressure to conform as black men.”
Williamson, also a senior, was equally enthusiastic about locating his character in a wider context.
“I think Ken represents the new, the next generation,” he said, citing a scene in which Rothko denigrates the emerging style of pop art, while Ken embraces it.
The two characters’ struggle to find common ground is made even more interesting by Ken’s ambiguous background.
“There are theories that Ken isn’t actually real, that he’s just a mirror image of Rothko,” Williamson said.
“Red” has only two speaking characters, but there is a third character looming over everything they say and do: the art itself. The setting prominently features murals and motifs inspired by Rothko’s unique work. Scenic designer Pan Moncada sought to recreate Rothko’s intense inner reality in the setting.
“We have muslin frames painted in Rothko’s style, to surround him with his artwork,” Moncada said. “He was all about life in his paintings.”
Visually depicting the experience conveyed in Rothko’s work was not only the set designer’s job.
“In one scene, the actors will actually be painting and priming a canvas onstage,” Moncada said.
Since the nature of his art was so all-encompassing, the set is designed to reflect the totality of his vision — and to portray the anticlimactic banality that goes into bringing his vision to life.
“He crafted his own studio, name and style as a colorist,” Moncada explained. “We wanted the set to ask, ‘What do certain reds mean?’”
One hopes the answer to that question does not take the same toll on the audience of “Red” as it did on the legendary genius it portrays.
“Red” plays Thursday, March 8 through Saturday, March 10 at 8 p.m. in the Balch Arena Theater. Tickets are pay-what-you-can on Thursday night and $8 on Friday and Saturday.