Through an artist’s eyes, darkly: ‘Red’ comes to the REP
By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
In 1999, San Diego-born playwright John Logan first hit the big time with his screenplay for “Any Given Sunday,” directed by Oliver Stone, with a high-profile cast including Al Pacino. Ten years later, with Oscar-nominated screenplays for “Gladiator” and “The Aviator,” under his belt, his play “Red,” about abstract artist Mark Rothko, was produced in London, starring Alfred Molina. It moved on to Broadway, winning a Tony for Best Play in 2010, and other awards.
Now, at last, this acclaimed drama is coming to town, opening at the San Diego REP on April 4.
Last September, the REP presented another artist-centered piece, Herbert Siguenza’s one-man tour-de-force, “A Weekend with Picasso.” “Red” is a piece of a different color, a two-man powerhouse that plumbs the depths of an artist’s psyche and creative process.
“This play feels like a spiritual séance,” said Sam Woodhouse, artistic director of San Diego REPertory Theatre. “It begins and ends with the image of Rothko staring out into the audience at one of his paintings, trying to hear what it says to him.”
The director of “Red” is Michael Arabian, a newcomer to the REP but not to the world of theater. He is especially known in Los Angeles, where he directed a multi-award-winning production of “Waiting for Godot” at the Mark Taper Forum in 2012. Playing Rothko is John Vickery, who played both Romeo and Macbeth at La Jolla Playhouse in the 1980s, and whose Broadway credits include originating the role of the villainous Scar in “The Lion King.” Vickery divides his time between LA and Canada, where he performs at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. This will be his first appearance at the REP.
“It’s an interesting challenge for me, at this point in my life,” he said. “’Red’ is really a psychodrama between two guys, the old and the new generation, and when I first read it, I thought: whoa, this is very applicable to me! I’m about the age Rothko was then, and I know what it’s like to feel like you’re losing your powers, can’t do the things you used to. The challenge is: how to present this to an audience.”
There were other challenges, too, Vickery said. “A lot of the play is talking about art, and I have to make it come off as deeply felt, without sounding ponderous. And there’s an awful lot of technical stuff we have to do — priming, mixing paints, climbing up to reach the canvases. We have an artist coaching us; we want to get things right.”
Vickery had never met Michael Arabian before, but knew his reputation. “I didn’t audition for him; we just had a long meeting and talked about art. We got along, and knew we could work well together,” Vickery said.
The same good feelings came up in the first reading, when Vickery met Jason Maddy, the young actor playing Rothko’s assistant. “I turned to him and said: ‘You’re gonna be great!’ “
Vickery looks forward to uncovering more layers of Rothko, and presenting his larger-than-life-size character onstage. “It’s been almost 30 years since I worked in San Diego,” he said. “It’s nice to be back.”
Mark Rothko, born Marcus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in Latvia in 1903, immigrated to the United States with his family in 1913, speaking only Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew. A fast learner, he graduated from high school with honors, winning a scholarship to Yale; then he dropped out of college, cut the Old-World excess from his name, and found a new life as an artist in New York.
Besides experimenting with color, he philosophized about art, inspired by the writings of Jung, Nietsche and Aeschylus. Originally influenced by surrealism, he moved toward abstraction, his paintings becoming large, layered blocks of colors. His fame grew, and in 1958, the Seagram Company, then the world’s largest producer of alcoholic beverages, offered him a commission: to create a set of murals for The Four Seasons, an upscale restaurant in their sleek new Park Avenue building.
Rothko’s studio, during the two years he worked on the paintings for that commission, is the setting for “Red.” His work was always informed by “tragedy, ecstasy, doom”; he never lived to see the completion of his Rothko Chapel in Houston, a monument to the transformative power of art. In 1970, depressed by poor health and a failed second marriage, he was found on his studio floor, a razor by his side, covered in blood.
If you go: “Red” runs matinees, evenings through April 27 at The Lyceum Stage, San Diego REPertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza four hours free parking with theater validation). Tickets: $18-$47. (619) 544-1000. sdrep.org
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