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Seeing Red: Rothko on Stage

Today’s post comes from Emily MacLeod, Class of 2012 and Art Center Student Docent.

“What do you see?”

This is the first line of the play Red by John Logan—and a question that we as docents often ask when starting a dialogue about works in our collection. The plot follows Mark Rothko as he works on his “Seagram Murals” in 1958, a lucrative commission that he abruptly reneged on for unknown reasons, but most likely due to his low opinion of the snobbery and upper class pretensions of the venue. The work was intended for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building. Rothko initially wanted to “ruin the appetite” of the clientele with his display, so he clearly knew what he was getting into, yet he still broke off the agreement, keeping the forty paintings he had completed in storage for ten years. They were then shipped to the Tate in London, arriving fatefully on the day of Rothko’s suicide in 1970.

Alfred Molina (left) and Eddie Redmayne (right) in the 2009 Donmar Warehouse production

The other character in the play, Rothko’s new assistant Ken, is fictional, and while the play consists entirely of their dialogue, the primary relationship on stage is between Rothko and his artwork, according to the New York Times review of the Broadway production. “It turns out to be more a study in artist [rather than art] appreciation, a portrait of an angry and brilliant mind that asks you to feel the shape and texture of thoughts,” wrote Ben Brantley, the chief Times theater critic.

Red premiered in London in 2009 and then moved to Broadway the next year, opening with great critical reception and audience acclaim. The production won six Tony Awards out of seven nominations, including Best Play, Best Director, Best Featured Actor and awards for the Scenic, Lighting and Sound Design. (The only nomination lost was for Best Actor—the formidable Alfred Molina as Rothko was passed over for Denzel Washington in Fences.) Following this success in New York, Red has become the most frequently produced play in American regional theaters (tied with God of Carnage) for the 2011 – 2012 season.

One of the most notable productions is co-sponsored by the Goodman Theater in Chicago, where it was staged last fall, and Arena Stage in Washington, DC, where it is appearing now until March 11th. Concurrently with the Arena production, the National Gallery of Art is exhibiting three of the Seagram paintings from its permanent collection.

Painting the canvas at Arena Stage, taken from the production blogYou can see a montage of scenes from the show as well.
You can also catch performances of Red at Berkeley Rep (March 16 – April 29), Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, FL (March 30 – April 22), Capital Repertory Theater in Albany, NY (April 23 – May 19) and Salt Lake City Acting Company (now until March 4).

Our own Rothko, No. 18 (1948), is on display in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center gallery and was the subject of the recent Kaleidoscope event in which professors from widely different disciplines focus on one artwork from the perspective of their field. This multidisciplinary approach is just a single facet of our commitment to museum education in a liberal arts setting. Come see the work for yourself and let Rothko’s words guide you:
“What do you see? Wait. Stand closer. You’ve got to get close. Let it pulsate. Let it work on you. Closer. Too close. There. Let it spread out. Let it wrap its arms around you; let it embrace you…Let the picture do its work—but work with it. Meet it halfway for God’s sake! Lean forward, lean into it. Engage with it! …Now, what do you see?”

Set at the Goodman Theater

Top image: From the Broadway production.

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