It’s not often that theater and modern art collide on stage, but the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall will be offering a melding of the two with a production of “Red,” John Logan’s play about the artist Mark Rothko and his struggles with one particular commission. The play will be staged from May 21 to June 8 in East Hampton, NY.  

Set in Rothko’s Bowery studio in New York City, the script covers two critical years in the painter’s career from 1958 to 1959. It was during this time that Rothko was at work on his Seagram Murals, a series of large paintings commissioned for The Four Seasons restaurant, which was then being constructed within Mies Van De Rohe’s and Philip Johnson’s newly completed Seagram’s Building on Park Avenue in New York City.

Stephen Hamilton directs this production, which stars Victor Slezak as Mark Rothko and Christian Scheider as Ken, the artist’s studio assistant. The five-scene play runs without intermission and is being presented in a “black box” style, with both the actors and the audience occupying an intimate space on the stage, as in several previous Hamilton productions at the John Drew.

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Victor Slezak as Mark Rothko and Christian Scheider as his assistant, Ken. Photo by Brian Leaver. Courtesy Guild Hall.

Victor Slezak, as Mark Rothko, and Christian Scheider as his assistant, Ken, in "Red" by John Logan. Photo by Brian Leaver. Courtesy Guild Hall.

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Rothko, a contemporary of Jackson Pollock and a major figure in abstract expressionism (though he personally loathed the term), produced 40 large format paintings in shades of dark red, brown and black for the Seagram commission. His intention was to ultimately narrow the selection down to the eight or so paintings that the restaurant could accommodate.

But that never happened.

Instead, after dining at The Four Seasons, an experience he found pretentious and superficial, Rothko abruptly terminated the mural commission without explanation and returned the advance he had received for the project.

“The play takes place around the time that art became a commodity and Rothko really shakes his fist at it,” explained Hamilton, who finds many parallels in the script that mirror today’s art market. “Art and commodity is something we take for granted now, but this was at a time when it was an important discussion to have. I think it’s still really important to take a close look at that. The success of any art is how well it does at the box office or how much it sells for at auction. That’s really the American way. It’s the opposite of Rothko, who needed to know where his work was going after it left his studio.”

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Victor Slezak as Mark Rothko in "Red". Photo by Brian Leaver. Courtesy Guild Hall.

Victor Slezak as Mark Rothko in "Red". Photo by Brian Leaver. Courtesy Guild Hall.

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“Red” involves the relationship between Rothko, then in his 50s, and Ken, his 20-something studio assistant. Throughout the play, Rothko and Ken work on the various Seagram Murals as they debate the nature of art—not only in terms of the emotion behind its creation, but the increase in celebrity quotient and the changing financial picture then beginning to frame the art world.

“This play is so challenging. It’s a wonderful conversation about art and humanity,” Hamilton added. “It’s so evocative of a very specific time in America when things were turning. It’s 1959, just short of the ’60s and things are about to blow up and you can feel it in the fervency of Rothko’s work.”

At its core, “Red” also explores the uncertainty and futility Rothko feels as a new generation of artists is taking center stage. Though still at the top of his game, with the emergence of Pop Artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Rothko sees his and his peers’ dominance starting to be eroded, just as he and his artistic contemporaries had usurped the Cubists and Surrealists before them.

“There’s such passion in this play — and comedy — that’s always viscerally appealing,” said Hamilton. “The language is rich and the ideas stunning. I knew nothing about the New York School during the ’50s and ’60s. It was the story that was compelling to me; the sense of Rothko being just on the precipice. He was at the height of his powers, but at the same time seeing the downward slope.”

While Rothko is front and center in this play, it is Ken, the eager young assistant and a budding artist in his own right, who frames much of Rothko’s angst. While there’s no evidence that Ken ever really existed, either as an individual or an amalgam of Rothko assistants, he’s a vital part of the play in that he defends those emerging artists while pushing and questioning Rothko in a way that gets him to arrive at a greater truth.

“Ken’s a contrivance in the best possible way,” said Hamilton. “He’s the perfect foil. He has the intelligence to match Rothko, and the instincts to match him.

“It’s funny because in the first scene Rothko says to Ken, ‘I am not your friend, not your father, not your rabbi,’ and in fact he becomes all those things,” Hamilton said. “He becomes a paternal figure, a spiritual leader and ultimately his friend.”

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Victor Slezak as Mark Rothko and Christian Scheider as Rothko's assistant, Ken, apply ground color. Photo by Brian Leaver. Courtesy Guild Hall.

Victor Slezak as Mark Rothko and Christian Scheider as Rothko's assistant, Ken, apply ground color in "Red". Photo by Brian Leaver. Courtesy Guild Hall.

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In truth, this is a fictionalized account of one of Rothko’s projects, so there’s no way of knowing how accurately Logan captured the artist’s personality, but Hamilton was able to gain a bit of insight during a recent visit to the Manhattan home of Donald Blinken. A former president of the Rothko Foundation and a friend of the artist, Blinken also served as ambassador to Hungary during the Clinton administration.

“He has four Rothko paintings—including two huge paintings from this period,” Hamilton said. “They spoke volumes about this play. They’re just so powerful and visceral and passionate and full of gravitas and doom—and so serious.”

“Unprompted, Blinken said, ‘I think this is a wonderful play,’” Hamilton recalled. “‘This is not my friend Mark Rothko, but the essence of the man is in every word.’”

“He knew the playwright had to do what he had to do to make a dramatic piece,” the director added. “To say the truth of the man is in this means the playwright was able to capture the truth of Rothko.”

So now that he has delved into this play and explored Rothko’s persona himself, can Hamilton say he has come to know more about the artist?

“Actually the opposite: I know less and less,” Hamilton confessed. “I think the passion of this production is going to really draw people in and they’re hopefully going to leave the theater with more questions than they had when they came in.”

Just like Hamilton?

“Yes,” he said. “I don’t expect them all to be answered. That’s for sure.”

As for the paintings produced for the Seagram commission, Rothko kept them in storage until 1968, and in 1970, after years of declining health, the artist committed suicide. He was 66 years old.

Today, the final series of Seagram Murals can be seen in three museums — Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, Tate Modern in London and Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art in Sakura City, Japan.

BASIC FACTS: “Red” by John Logan will be performed May 21 to June 8 at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays to Sundays at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton, New York 11937. www.guildhall.org

General admission tickets are $33 for Guild Hall members, $35 for non-members and $10 for students.  Seating is limited to 75 as the audience sits on the stage. Tickets can be purchased by clicking here.  

"Rothko Revisited: A Panel Discussion” will be held on On Saturday, June 7, at 11 a.m. on the set of “Red.” Guests are Ambassador Donald Blinken, former President of the Rothko Foundation; Christophe de Menil, Dia Art Foundation; Ben Heller; and director Stephen Hamilton. The panel is moderated by Guild Hall Museum Director Christina Strassfield.

Seating is limited. Admission is $5 or $3 for Guild Hall members. Tickets available online at www.guildhall.org or through the box office at 631-324-4050 or by calling 1-866-811-4111.

RELATED: Mark Rothko's Black on Maroon painting, originally created for Four Seasons, is reinstalled at The Tate Modern after repair, according to the BBC News: "Mark Rothko work goes back on display after vandalism", published May 13, 2014.

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