Born Marcus Rothkovich in Dvinsk, Russia (now Latvia) in 1903, Mark Rothko was an artist who created larger-than-life canvases until his death by suicide in 1970.
“Red,” John Logan’s play about Rothko, which garnered six Tony Awards in 2010, is currently onstage at the Seattle Repertory Company in a shared production coming to Tucson’s Arizona Theatre Company from April 7 to 28.
The play, which focuses on Rothko’s decision to accept a lucrative commission at New York’s snazzy Four Seasons restaurant in 1958, shows what “one powerful person can do to open up a whole new direction in life,” says Richard E.T. White, director of the Seattle and ATC productions.
Both Rothko and his young assistant, Ken, are “rootless characters,” White told the AJP. At one point, “Rothko says to him, ‘I am not your mentor. I am not your father. I am not your rabbi.’”
“Red” isn’t a biopic; “you won’t get to know Mark Rothko so much better,” notes the director. “Why the play is important for all of us is we’ve had an encounter with an extraordinary person,” although it’s Ken who pushes “the tables being turned,” the key turning point or “ethical conundrum” in the play.
“Do you sacrifice your ideals to make a lot of money? How do you negotiate these important questions?” says White, chair of the theater department at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Part of the play’s appeal to the educator/director is the “desire to see making art as more than a technical craft, but an ethical, philosophical and life-affirming process.”
As in Rothko’s paintings, “Red” has “layers of one translucent glaze over another,” he says. “Logan wanted to draw us in. He’s created an experience in layers, a mystery.”
The decision to stage “Red” in Tucson stems from “visual artists making compelling theater,” says David Ira Goldstein, ATC’s artistic director. “It’s tremendous theater in a muscular way.”
For Denis Arndt, who plays Rothko in both the Seattle and ATC productions, “it’s about discovering the human heart in a character. I’ve often heard that Rothko wasn’t a very likeable character but there’s a great deal of care in the way he treats Ken, even though he treats him like a dishrag.”
And, says Arndt, who was raised a Catholic, “I’ve always found a great deal of heart in everything Jewish. It has to do with the largeness of heart that misses the mundane that so many people seem to get hung up on.” In Rothko, Arndt saw “the Judaic ethos, the intelligence, sense of struggle, arguing with the forces [of life] and a deep spiritual rigor.”
Rothko received an Orthodox Jewish education in Russia before his family immigrated to the United States when he was 10. He grew up in Portland, Ore., attended Yale University for two years but left in 1923 and moved to New York.
Rothko was never outwardly religious, but “his willingness to look deep instead of painting the surface connected him to Jewish tradition,” says Goldstein. “Something deep in his psyche influenced him, and that darkness and angst in his paintings connected him to the Holocaust” during the early and middle 1940s. After trying different styles of painting, Rothko found his creative niche in the often vibrant abstract expressionism of the 1950s.
In Tucson, “there’s a very good Rothko at the University of Arizona Art Museum,” says Goldstein, noting that “Red” is an example of “theater as a wonderful place for a dialogue of ideas.”
For White, the ATC director, “there’s one act after the last act, when the audience talks to each other in the lobby. That’s my idea of a perfect play.”
For ticket information, contact ATC at 622-2823 or arizonatheatre.org.