WESTPORT – RED. Rothko. Depot.
That’s enough to get audiences hooked on what director Elliot Wasserman and actors Jeff Williams (Mark Rothko) and Michael Glavan (Ken, studio assistant) were up to in Westport.
The Depot Theater’s production of playwright John Logan’s award-winning 2010 play “RED” transcends the depths of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), art history and his real-life commission in 1958, which opened the New Yorker Restaurant Four Seasons should flank a series of murals.
“RED” is a compelling journey about aging, discovery and relationships as seen through the lens of Rothko’s new assistant.
Williams did a lot of research for this role.
“I think it’s important to the play, important to me to play the character, but I don’t think it’s that important to an audience watching the play,” he said.
“For me personally, I saw the play when it came out on Broadway, so about 12 years ago. I’ve just started online and have been looking at his (Rothko) work a lot. I read a large part of a biography of his, which was very dense, and I didn’t quite get there because I had many lines to learn. That was a priority.”
Williams visited museums to see Rothko’s paintings.
“The other thing that was really important was that I was just rattling off the names of artworks, writers and other artists and things throughout the play, and I felt like I needed to know who they were,” he said .
“So I spent a lot of time creating for myself a whole folder of every reference that is made in the piece. As we work in it, as I read it and learn more and more about it, yes, it’s about Mark Rothko and a very specific incident in his life with the murals for the Four Seasons, but to me it’s more about an artist’s dealings with aging, dealing with a younger generation coming to take over, dealing with how long your popularity will ever last, what legacy you will leave behind, and things like that.
Williams said it’s important for people to understand that they don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of Rothko or contemporary art to access the piece.
“It certainly helps your understanding, but it’s a human play on the relationship between these two men and how it evolves over a period of several years,” he said.
Only Rothko and Ken exist in Logan’s distilled sphere of the artist’s studio. There are no wives or descendants.
Just canvas, brush, paint and the big questions of art. What does it take to create? What role does art play in the world?
Glavan glides with glorious freedom as his character is fictional.
“I’m enjoying this show,” he said.
“What was cool about processing someone I don’t necessarily need to worship, who doesn’t have a historical definition, is that I like to process my character backwards. So that I’m an interesting scene partner, right?
“You have two people on stage and they agree on everything, no real conflict or whatever, it’s not very interesting.”
Glavan examines everything in the script and analyzes the celebrated artist.
“Like Jeff said, he has all these manifestos and rules and quotes like Nietzsche,” he said.
“He studies philosophy and architecture and history and all those things. I’m fine, so that’s what makes him special. How is the opposite? How can I go in and build up excitement right away? As someone who has a manifesto and rules for what art is and how to make it and all that stuff, you turn it on its head. Here’s like a young buck walking in with no idea what art is. Anything can qualify. He’s so excited and kind of exuberant about the ability to be touched by art.”
Ken rebels against Rothko’s restrictions and framework.
“It’s about finding that balance, rather than that rigid and strict nature, to have lightness and Golden Retriever energy in the space,” Glavan said.
“Be the student who’s willing to learn, and he does it because towards the end of the show, the climax, at least for my character, he takes all those one-liners that he picked up on. He’s an intelligent boy. He is an avid learner. He uses Rothko’s words straight back to him. Oh, it’s so very satisfying. and that’s because he cares about those things now. These rules are important to him. He can do it that way, so he learned and he took those lessons and he appreciated them.”
Ken emerges from a nursing home realm, unstructured, unsupported, a non-familiar sea and sanctuaries in Rothko’s studio full of artistic demands and intensity.
“He’s got a place where he ended up and a place where he belongs and finds a purpose and a kind of comfort, intimacy and love that that creates within him for that space,” Glavan said.
“Not just the studio, but the act of making art. The way they can work together is as comfortable as it has ever been. The idea of branching out isn’t there until Rothko does it.
‘HOW MUCH LONGER DO I HAVE?’
At the beginning of the play, Rothko says that he and his “The Ten” colleagues – Ilya Bolotowsky, Ben-Zion, Adolph Gottlieb, Louis Harris, Ralph Rosenborg, Louis Schanker and Joseph Solman – kicked Cubism to its death.
“We took what they did and we took it to the next location and we’re the only thing that matters now,” Williams said.
“The concern is that someone like Ken will stomp me to death. Learn from me and go in another direction and make me no more useful.”
Williams is about the same age as Rothko when the Four Seasons murals were commissioned.
“Well, I see,” he said.
“For me it resonated with the idea of how long do I have? Am I making an impression? Am I leaving any legacy? Am I going to be replaced by a new group of people who have different ideas and different thoughts and things? That definitely clicked in my head.”