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It will not be necessary to know who Mark Rothko was, or Frank Stella or Roy Lichtenstein, or New York abstract expressionism, to understand what motivates the characters in "Red," the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's upcoming production.
Though its dialogue is heavy on the philosophy of art, the men who play the 90-minute production's two characters say the play is about the evolving relationship between mentor and apprentice and the inevitable replacement of one by the other. Rothko's paintings won't even be part of the set; director Robert Hupp is leaving the art up to the audience's imagination.
But will be possible to know who Mark Rothko was, as well as what his art looked like, because The Rep's production opens the same day as the Arkansas Arts Center's exhibit, "Mark Rothko in the 1940s: The Decisive Decade," an exhibition of Rothko's work prior to the color-field paintings that put him in the pantheon of the New York School gods.
John Logan's play, the winner of six Tony Awards (including best play) in 2010, will feature Joseph Graves as Rothko and Chris Wendelken as his assistant, Ken Graves, who is the artistic director of Peking University's Institute of World Theatre and Film, has appeared in a number of Rep productions, including roles as Prospero in "The Tempest," Iago in "Othello," Willie Stark in "All the King's Men," Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," and others. Wendelken is making his debut at The Rep; he has performed on stage nationally and on television.
The play is set in Rothko's studio in an old gymnasium at 222 Bowery St. in New York. He's working on a commission for the nascent Four Seasons restaurant, in the Seagram's building designed by Mies van der Rohe, a name he's obviously proud to be associated with. Rothko is proud ("I'm a noun. A Rothko"), passionate, brilliant, opinionated, self-absorbed and dark — an anti-hero. Ken is timid, praise-seeking, youthful, forward-looking. Their free-association exchange over the color red: To Ken's "red wine" Rothko responds "Dresden firestorm." To Ken's "Persimmons," Rothko responds "Lava. Lobsters. Scorpions." Ken: "Traffic lights." Rothko: "Slash your wrists. Blood in the sink."
Though the characters speak in the language of art, using Caravaggio and Jackson Pollock as a kind of shorthand, the action "is really about the relationship between these two guys" and the evolution of Rothko's assistant from apprentice to knowing his own mind, Graves said in a sit-down with a reporter. By the end of the play, which takes place over two years, Ken comes to realize that Rothko's harsh bravado is merely fear of becoming irrelevant.
The Rep and the Arts Center have scheduled special events around the performance. Hupp, Graves and Wendelken will talk about the play at the Clinton School of Public Service at noon Oct. 25. On Oct. 29, Arkansas Arts Center Night, theatergoers can use the code word "ART" to get half-price tickets to the play. Hupp and Arts Center Director Todd Herman will host three special "post-show salons" with audience members after performances Oct. 30, Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 in Foster's, the bar on The Rep's second floor. Little Rock artist Matt McLeod will paint at The Rep before the show on Nov. 2 and will be joined by other Little Rock artists.
The Rep will also host Craft Beer Night on Halloween at Foster's, serving $2 to $4 brews; folks who wear red will receive a "special treat," the theater's publicity says. The Oct. 30 production will be sign-interpreted. The play runs Wednesday through Sunday through Nov. 10. Tickets run $30 to $35 depending on show dates and times; those who've bought the $10 ticket to see "Mark Rothko in the 1940s: The Decisive Decade" at the Arts Center will get $5 off their tickets and those who've got tickets to see "Red" will get $5 off their admission to the exhibition.