“What do you see?” Russian-born abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko asks in Tony Award-winning play, “Red.” Rothko saw a society devoid of spirituality. The eccentric artist will come alive this weekend at Red Barn Studio under the direction of veteran thespian Sam Robison.
Inspired by Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy,” which asserted Greek tragedies allowed spectators to find meaning in life by living vicariously through the presented suffering, Ruthko aimed to infuse catharsis in his oil paintings.
His post-WWII work comprised archaic forms and symbols; however, his later work became increasingly abstract and culminated in complementing or contrasting colored rectangles depicted on large canvases. Much of his inspiration for such works came from Matisse’s “Red Studio.” Though his art form became more abstract, he found his evolution to be one of clarity.
“Red” takes place late in Rothko’s career (’58-’59) as he paints a set of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant. His assistant Ken continuously questions the eccentric artist, which allows Rothko’s psyche to unfold onstage.
Written by John Logan, “Red” first opened in London in 2009. It transferred to Broadway at the John Golden Theatre the next year. It won the 2010 Tony Award for Distinguished Production of a Play. Overall it was nominated for seven awards that year and took home six.
Director Sam Robison’s acting chops have been featured all over Wilmington. He’s played multiple characters on “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill,” and his finesse has graced musicals such as City Stage’s production of “Cabaret.” His talent even took him to New York in 2008. Though well-versed in the stage, he finds his work as writer/director for comedy sketch troupe Changing Channels gave him the most information on approaching the director’s chair.
“I realize [Changing Channels was] notorious for some excessively blue material, and [I] have known many people who looked down derisively on the work that we did,” he tells, “but you have to understand that this was a group of very large personalities, some of whom had surprisingly fragile egos. What I learned, or hope I learned, was how to trick actors into doing what I want them to do by convincing them that they had ‘discovered’ it on their own. There is nothing more important to an actor than ownership of their performance. It can really make or break a show.”
Though Robison was living in New York during the play’s initial run, it wasn’t until newly appointed Thalian Association artistic director David Loudermilk handed him the script that he truly delved into the material.
“Thalian already had their season picked out and David approached me about directing ‘Red,’” Robison explains. “I wasn’t more than five pages into the script when I knew I needed to do it.”
The work speaks to all artists, regardless of medium. “It’s a play about beauty, narcissism, art, pride, money, life,
Chinese food, and death,” Robison describes. “What’s not to relate to?”
The cast comprises Robb Mann as Rothko and Patrick Basqiull as Ken. The intimate Red Barn Studio Theatre perfectly houses the claustrophobia of a play consisting of two main characters.This will be Mann’s first undertaking of a real-life character.
“So there has been a fair amount of research I’ve been able to do [for] the character,” he comments. His performance will have to embody a man of many contradictions. Rothko’s passion defines him, and bringing such a staunch character to life, while also making him sympathetic and relatable, proves a difficult feat.
“We are actually very different personalities,” Mann continues, “and that is one of the fun challenges of the role. One thing we have in common is a belief that art can, if executed properly, genuinely move people.”
Hot off Cape Fear Shakespeare on the Green’s “Comedy of Errors,” the highly comedic Basquill takes on a more serious role. As a young artist, Basquill finds his life mirrors Ken’s; both are searching for that first life-changing connection. Basquill strives to illuminate Ken’s restraint, while still rendering the complicated swirl of ideas beneath the character’s surface. Given that “Red” is a two-man play, Basquill must hone in on working off another actor to ensure their interactions are organic.
“The script is so beautifully written. So as the actor [and] as the interpreter here, it’s up to me to be as honest as possible and listen to Robb,” Basquill says.
An expert set of creatives will bring the background to life, with Dallas LaFon taking on lighting. “The Bowery on the Lower East Side of New York is an old neighborhood of mine that has such a specific quality of light that I’ve never seen anywhere else,” Robison reports. “I’ve been working with Dallas to really capture that Bowery quality of light.”
Rothko’s character describes a fear that “one day the black will swallow the red.” Benedict Fancy has been tasked with building a set that will literally bring this fear to fruition when combined with lighting. “What I asked both Dallas and Benedict for was a Bowery art studio grounded in reality but surrounded in negative space,” Robison elaborates.
A large canvas, built by Lance Howell, will be featured on stage, too. The back walls of the studio is made up of canvases that will give glimpses of some of Rothko’s work, creating a highly visceral element. “I don’t know of any other play that does that,” Robison proclaims. “It’s pretty awesome!”
Red Barn Studio • 1122 S. 3rd St.
July 3rd-6th, 10th-13th, 17th-20th, 24th-26th
Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $25 • www.thalian.org