By Tessa Raebeck
The job of the artist assistant is to stretch canvases, mix paint, grab coffee and, in many cases, serve as the sounding board and mellowing counterpart to the boss’ eccentricity.
Such is the case in “Red,” a Tony-Award winning two-man play by John Logan centered on the relationship between the renowned postwar American artist Mark Rothko and his young assistant, Ken. Produced by Guild Hall in association with Ellen J. Myers, the play, which premiered in 2009, will open on the John Drew Theatre stage Wednesday, May 21.
Directed by Sag Harbor’s Stephen Hamilton, noted for his recent shows at the John Drew Theatre including Martin McDonough’s “The Cripple of Inishmann” and Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanda,” “Red” stars Victor Slezak as Rothko and Christian Scheider as Ken.
“The discussion that takes place between them, the action between them is a debate about commerce and art, about humanity,” Mr. Hamilton said of the main characters. “It’s about art and humanity, it’s about the importance and meaning of art in our life.”
Of Russian Jewish descent, Rothko, unlike many other artists, rose to prominence during his own lifetime and was at the apex of his career during the play’s two-year span, from 1958 to 1959.
At the time his inventive young assistant Ken comes to work with him, Rothko has just received an unheard of public commission for $35,000, the equivalent of about $2 million in today’s market, from the Four Seasons Restaurant to create murals, now known as the Seagram murals. The entire play takes place in the studio at 222 Bowery in New York City where the murals were created.
Although he himself rejected the term, Rothko was classified alongside his contemporaries Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock as “one of the most famous abstract expressionists in the New York school,” according to Mr. Hamilton.
Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were just coming into prominence in the late 1950s, much to the chagrin of Rothko.
“All of these artists are just starting to get recognized and that whole movement—it was a big shift between the expressionists and this time,” said Mr. Hamilton. “And its reaction to that—Mark Rothko is a bigger than life character, whose impressions and whose very deep feeling about the meaning of art in the world comes to stark contrast with what he thinks is the complete sort of obliteration of that psyche.”
“There is no such thing as good painting about nothing,” Rothko once said.
Pop artists were critiquing the art world of Rothko, essentially making fun of its gravity.
“It’s on the theme of seriousness,” said Mr. Scheider, a Sagaponack native and a young up-and-coming actor who plays the role of Ken. “Seriousness in art, seriousness in what you say, seriousness in what you live. Meaning Rothko was very much somebody who felt himself to be an outsider in American culture for a long time—until, of course, he became sort of a pillar of that culture, but that happened later—and so, throughout his whole life he dealt with this—I’m not going to say insecurity, because in fact he had a lot of security in himself—but a doubt as to whether there were people that could look at his paintings. He didn’t know if people were going to be moved by them.”
“So, much of what Ken does in the play is through the course of it, he sort of proves it possible that one can develop an appreciation for an abstract painting as a lay person,” he added. “So in a way he’s kind of a foil, but Ken in his own way is an artist.”
Although Ken is a painter, he’s not making art when he works with Rothko. He’s supporting the artist by grabbing food and cigarettes and doing the busy work. Throughout the play, he complements Rothko’s long-winded monologues with one-word, monosyllabic answers.
“What do you see?” Rothko will often ask.
“Red,” replies Ken.
Rothko will rage, stomping around the room, slinging packets of paint at his assistant, who will, in turn, pick up the packets, toss the artist a cigarette and clean up after his rage.
“Rothko’s right at the height of his powers right now, 1958-59, there’s nobody painting like him. He has achieved his mature style that you recognize from Rothko and yet he knows that that energy, that life force—right around the corner is the diminution of that force. He’s not in the greatest health and he knows that he’s right at the apex of his career, there’s nowhere else to go,” said Mr. Hamilton.
The youthful energy of Ken collides with the threat of dead-end maturity felt by Rothko, setting off their conflict in moments of both humorous dialogue and pure tension.
“One of the central questions in the play is, ‘What do you see?” Mr. Scheider said. “Which, of course, is whatever you see, I mean there’s no right answer… but for Rothko, he was trying to make people weep, which is hard to do with blocks of color, but somehow he managed.”
Mr. Scheider said the mentorship, intentional or not, of Rothko on Ken correlates to his own experience working with Mr. Slezak, a veteran actor who has been performing regularly on stage, films and television for 40 years.
“He’s a seasoned actor and is bringing a kind of gravitas to this role that is really impressive and inspiring because he’s the kind of actor who can live a character,” said Mr. Hamilton, adding, “He can really bring this character to life and same with Christian [Scheider], they’re both doing a fantastic job.”
“For me, as a young actor working with a much more experienced actor, there’s a lot of overlap between the rehearsal process and the play, it’s actually very useful,” said Mr. Scheider. “As a young person, [I am] honored to be given this responsibility.”
“Ken, over the course of the play, becomes a better artist by having just been with him.” Mr. Scheider said. “They have very different intentions in their work and yet Rothko instilled in him a kind of fearlessness…to take himself seriously.”
In Rothko’s words: “Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.”
“Red” runs from Wednesdays through Sundays from May 21, through June 8 at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street in East Hampton. Tickets are $35 for general admission, $33 for members and $10 for students. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 324-4050 or visit guildhall.org.