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‘Red’ uses stage as canvas in painting a volcanic Mark Rothko

Edward Gero (left) makes his Chicago debut as artist Mark Rothko while Patrick Andrews serves as his studio assistant Ken

Edward Gero (left) makes his Chicago debut as artist Mark Rothko while Patrick Andrews serves as his studio assistant, Ken, in John Logan’s Tony-winning “Red,” which captures a tumultuous moment in Rothko’s career.

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Updated: November 22, 2011 11:13AM

The most astonishing sequence in “Red,” John Logan’s 2011 Tony Award-winning play about a tumultuous moment in the career of Mark Rothko, the master Abstract Expressionist painter, is entirely wordless. It occurs as Rothko, a great bear of a man in middle age, teams up with his slender, boyish studio assistant to prime one of his enormous canvases.

A scene of immense muscularity and visible sweat, it has these two men rhythmically send great, slashing sweeps of blood-red paint flying. A vivid reminder that “art isn’t easy,” it is a galvanic moment in a play that is often a torrent of words. And Logan, whose drama receives its Chicago debut this week at the Goodman Theatre — on the heels of its great success at London’s Donmar Warehouse and on Broadway — knew it had to be there.

“I wanted this to be a work play, and I knew it needed some big action,” said Logan, who was in Chicago recently as the production directed by his old pal and collaborator, Robert Falls, was in rehearsal.

“To earn its stage space, the play had to make you see what painters really do,” said the playwright. “As part of my research, I hung out at the studios of artists in New York and L.A. and really got to know the subculture, which is one of the things I love most about my job. I realized that the priming of the canvas could be the fulcrum point from which the dynamic between Rothko [who was born in what is now Latvia in 1903, and who committed suicide in 1970] and his young assistant was lifted — something violent, sexual, a complete ejaculation of theatrical energy.”

“Red” is Logan’s first play in years. The writer, who celebrates his 50th birthday Sept. 24, graduated from Northwestern University, made his mark as a playwright here throughout the 1980s (with such memorable dramas as “Never the Sinner,” about the Leopold and Loeb case, and “Hauptmann,” about the Lindbergh baby killer) and eventually headed to Hollywood. He has since become one of the busiest and most successful screenplay writers around, with credits that include “Gladiator,” “The Aviator,” “Star Trek: Nemesis” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the screen version of the Stephen Sondheim musical. He has written the screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s soon-to-be-released film, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” as well as for the latest James Bond film. And he has begun collaborating with rock legend Patti Smith on a screen version of her much-lauded memoir, Just Kids.

The play’s canvas-priming moment is not unlike the thunderclap moment that inspired Logan to write “Red.”

As he recalled: “I was in London, working on ‘Sweeney Todd,’ and I went to see a show of Rothko’s work at the Tate Modern. I walked into the gallery with the nine Seagrams murals — huge works in a brooding palette of variations of red and black, and I was blown away. And after reading the notes on the wall, I almost immediately knew this would be a two-hander of a play.”

Those notes explained how, in the late 1950s, Rothko had been commissioned to paint a series of murals for the posh Four Seasons Restaurant in the elegant Seagram’s Building on New York’s Park Avenue. The artist ultimately made the wrenching decision to withdraw from the commission and return the money because the restaurant was the wrong site for his monumental, profoundly spiritual work that required intense, serious observation.

“The play cooked in my head for a year, during which I did a huge amount of research,” Logan said. “And I started focusing on two dramatically interesting things in the story. First, Rothko believed passionately in the importance of art. He believed art mattered. And there was not a pompous, pretentious bone in his body. In fact, he thought art should be a part of everyone’s life, and that there should be little roadside museums all along Route 66 so people could stop and be enriched.”

“In addition, Rothko was a volcanic, larger-than-life figure, both literally and figuratively. He was sober and rabbinical on the one hand, and excessive and angry on the other. He was a bundle of contradictions — literate, profound, intensely verbal — a man who could keep his emotions in check until there was a sudden explosion. Both generous and selfish, he loved his contemporary, Jackson Pollock, but hated the next generation of ‘pop artists’ like Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein and Warhol. In part, he felt threatened by them, but mostly he felt they didn’t take their job as artists seriously. The late 1950s and early 1960s was a transitional moment in the art world, and Rothko was standing on the precipice.”

The London and New York productions of “Red,” directed by Michael Grandage, featured Alfred Molina (as Rothko) and Eddie Redmayne (as Ken). The Goodman edition, which will move to Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in January, will feature the first two American actors to play the roles, with Edward Gero making his Chicago debut as the painter, and Patrick Andrews, the gifted Chicago-based actor, as his assistant.

Although Logan says he wakes up every morning “feeling like a playwright,” it was his friend, Stephen Sondheim, with whom he often attended the theater when they were working on “Sweeney Todd” together in London, who pushed him to return to his roots.

“He kept saying, ‘John, the theater needs playwrights.’ And frankly, nothing makes me more elated than being in the rehearsal room of a theater.”

For Logan, one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing a play is that, unlike a film, it is never “finished,” but has a new life with each production. During the next year alone, “Red” will be staged in Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Sydney, Prague, Athens, Budapest, Berlin, Stockholm, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and many other places.

“I would love to see all these productions,” said Logan. “I’m even waiting for one that uses no paint at all — maybe just light or projections.”

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