While modern art is not everyone’s cup of tea, many are drawn to it for its mysterious nature. Modernists take form, color and ideas and make them dance in the viewer’s mind.

Once, while touring the east wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, I found myself staring for quite some time at one of Mark Rothko’s large untitled works. It showed a rectangle of yellow atop one of brown, melting into a thin frame of red. There were a few streaks of white, and I recall some green. The painting was divided, but unified; filled with contrast, yet fluid; simple as well as intricate. It was brilliantly confounding and gave me goosebumps.

I thought of the beautiful things that can be seen in both brightness and darkness; how the melding of colors from dusk to dawn bring out different feelings and mood. Rothko’s color field painting had my thoughts spinning.

Suddenly, I was brought back to reality by a comment made by a visitor looking over my shoulder. He said something like: “Don’t know what the big deal is. I could paint that.” The visitor stopped briefly and went on to another room in the gallery. Rothko was not his cup of tea.

I wondered, what would that man feel if he indeed tried to paint something in the likeness of Rothko’s work? Would his mind be racing with thoughts and emotions? How would he put those on paper or canvas? Maybe he would give up in frustration, realizing that the painting was a bigger deal than he had first thought.

Red is the Tony Award-winning two-character play by John Logan centered on fictional conversations between Mark Rothko and a young assistant.

It is being presented onstage by Theatrikos Theatre Company in Flagstaff this weekend only. The local performance is co-directed by Adrienne Bischoff and Becky Daggett. Actor Jim Taylor plays Rothko, and Gavin Buckley portrays the young protégé, Ken.

At the beginning of the play, Rothko entreats Ken to see and feel the artist’s work.

“You’ve got to get close. Let it pulsate. Let it work on you. … Let it embrace you, filling even your peripheral vision so nothing else exists or has ever existed or will ever exist. … These pictures deserve compassion and they live or die in the eye of the sensitive viewer.”

Ken’s initial response to what he sees: “Red.”

I have the inkling that Ken’s first reaction was similar to that of the visitor I encountered at the National Gallery of Art. He’s seeing the image but not feeling it. But what Rothko sought was to elicit emotion from the viewer.

“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them,” the artist said.

Red takes place in Rothko’s voluminous rented studio in New York in the late 1950s, when the painter was working on a commissioned job, a set of panels for the new Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. Rothko had come into his own as an artist and this was his first commission. He may have viewed it as a grand opportunity. The Four Seasons was to be the forerunner in new American cuisine—said to be the first fine dining establishment to draw up changing menus with fresh seasonal offerings.

Rothko painted some of the panels with hues ranging from orange to burgundy, to deep reds, browns and black—intense color in sizable form. In the end, Rothko decided the murals did not belong in the restaurant and he returned the commission money. The reasons why remain a mystery that Logan explores, but not as much as he delves into the relationship between Rothko and his art and Rothko and the art world.

“Red is more than a biographical drama,” says Bischoff. “It’s about the universal struggle between being accepted and being authentic.”

Red examines a bit about art appreciation and even more about the forces of human nature—thought and emotion—that drive creativity. Interestingly, the pinnacle of the play comes in a scene without dialog, a carefully choreographed piece that says more about the artist’s struggle than simple words can offer.

In Daggett’s view though, the play is both a verbal and visual feast.

She says some of the dialogue is so gorgeous that “I wish we could stop the play and have the actors repeat those lines.”

If you go see Red, go early. Theatrikos has arranged for a special 15-minute pre-show presentation by art historian Catherine Petersen of Northern Arizona University. She will discuss abstract expressionism, Rothko’s early years and his impact on art.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9-11, at the Doris Harper-White Community Playhouse, 11 W. Cherry Ave. Individual tickets are $15 plus applicable fees. Tickets can be purchased online; by calling 774-1662; or by visiting the theater’s box office, open from noon to 6 p.m. on Friday and two hours prior to each performance.


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