Layers Upon Layers: ENSEMBLE THEATRE’S ‘RED’ BRINGS ABSTRACT PAINTER MARK ROTHKO TO PRICKLY LIFE

Matt Gottlieb, left, as Rothko and Shaun Anthony as his assistant. Ken, in "Red"

Matt Gottlieb, left, as Rothko and Shaun Anthony as his assistant. Ken, in “Red”

Director Brian Schnipper is telling us about abstract artist Mark Rothko, the subject of his upcoming play at Ensemble Theatre, “Red.”

“With Rothko’s murals, there’s so many layers and he used very thin paint. You can see the top layer and the second layer and maybe the third, but beyond that— and Rothko said he sometime painted 26 layers. Even art historians say you can’t tell where certain paints start. They can’t understand his techniques. Sometimes he’d burn the canvas with turpentine, they know that, but as to the layers, they don’t know how.”

Similarly, John Logan’s “Red” uncovers layer after layer of the reclusive character, as the artist (Matt Gottlieb) must negotiate a commissioned work for the expensive Four Seasons restaurant, while taking interrogative questions from his assistant Ken (Shaun Anthony) about the role of art and commerce.

The commission was real and took place around 1958 or 1959, but the character of Ken is a composite of several people and intellectual ideas, especially of a post-modern intellect and approach to “selling out.”

“That commission was $35,000,” says Mr. Anthony. “That was a lot of money to him, but it wasn’t just about the money. It was like, a) I can get the money, and it’s the most ever commissioned, and b) I get to stick it to them with my work. I can show them a thing or two and make them uncomfortable.

“The relationship between the two covers the whole range of teacher-student, father-son. There’s conflict everywhere. My character calls him on it: you don’t need the money, you don’t need to do this. But my character is also looking for some sort of love and respect from this guy.”

Despite being an artist as well, Ken’s own work never interests Rothko. This of course eats at him.

John Logan has written for Hollywood (“The Aviator,” “Gladiator”) as well as theater, and “Red” marked his return to the stage in 2010. The play went on to win six Tony awards. The play is all the more remarkable considering how averse Rothko was (he died in 1970) to any publicity. There are very few photographs of the man, and no film footage, and a scarcity of interviews. Mr. Logan created the play after much research, but it makes the work for the actor much harder than if there was an abundance of sources.

Mr. Schnipper directs this two-man play, marking his return to the company after “Bell, Book & Candle” and “Opus.” Ensemble fans will also recognize Mr. Gottlieb from “The Uneasy Chair,” where he played eight different characters.

Mr. Schnipper has brought in Brian Sidney Bembridge to work on the set. Where the original production — with Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne — attempted to recreate Rothko’s studio with some realism, Mr. Bembridge has created an abstract set for an abstract artist. The lighting of the theater is all exposed, and Mr. Bembridge has given the space a holy feel to it, fitting for an artist who created his own chapel.

For the two actors, the 90-minute plus show — no intermission — is that wonderful sort of challenge, with both on stage the whole time. There’s no pauses to regroup backstage.

“It’s like jumping into the middle of the ocean,” says Mr. Anthony. “There is no shallow end.”

“You have to go into your adrenaline reserves,” agrees Mr. Gottlieb. “Connecting with Rothko’s flame has really energized me. He never stopped, and was so committed. That’s what made him so difficult, too.”

Red
When: Friday through June 1; 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday (no 7 p.m. show on May 25), 7 p.m. May 20 and 4 p.m. May 24
Where: The New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St.
Cost: $40 -$65
Information: 965-5400 or ensembletheatre.com

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