Next Wednesday, May 21, the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall begins previews of its newest production, a two-week run of John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play RED.
Directed by Stephen Hamilton, the play explores philosophical questions about art, while also recounting color field painter Mark Rothko’s famous 1958 commission to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram Building. At the time, it was “the largest commission in modern art,” but Rothko toiled over the paintings and struggled with the idea that his work was being reduced to something more decorative than challenging or moving.
The story is told through an onstage dialogue between Rothko (played by Victor Slezak) and Ken, his young assistant (Christian Scheider). The two discuss the meaning of art, the financial rewards of the commission and what the painter sacrifices in order to get it. Through their shared experience and discussion, both Rothko and Ken learn from one another and move toward some kind of clarity about the role of art for artist and viewer.
“He ended up rejecting the commission,” Hamilton, the play’s director explains, giving away the end while also proving that RED, much like a successful painting, is not about the final result, but the process of getting there.
Hamilton, who also directed Guild Hall’s critically acclaimed and sold-out productions of Uncle Vanya and The Cripple of Inishmaan, says he was aware of RED when it won the Tony for Best Play in 2010, but he didn’t see it at the time. It was only after one of his acting students read a monologue in class that he came to see the play’s genius.
Later, after Guild Hall agreed to produce RED, Hamilton visited the home of collector and former Mark Rothko Foundation President Donald Blinken, to experience Rothko’s paintings firsthand. That was the moment, the director says, he came to truly understand the gravity of his subject.
“These pictures were amazing,” Hamilton says, recalling what he described as “massive, sonorous and dark paintings,” dripping with drama. “You could actually hear these pictures talking,” the director adds. “Attention must be paid—these are not nice pictures, these are not decorations.”
With the weight of Rothko’s work, and everything the paintings “said,” to guide him, Hamilton shaped his approach to bringing Logan’s words and characters—and Rothko’s work—to life onstage.
The greatest challenge of directing a two-man play featuring a back and forth discourse about a particular issue, is to make it a play, not a debate, Hamilton explains, noting that he wanted to convey the magnitude of Rothko’s paintings, which the actors view just behind the audience. “You’re in front of pictures and they are speaking,” he told Slezak and Scheider. “Refer to the pictures.”
Of course, one of Hamilton’s most brilliant decisions was leaving the paintings out of the set completely, allowing the actors and audience to create them in their mind’s eye—which is far more powerful than any re-creation the production could muster. “These paintings exist behind the fourth wall,” he says.
The intimate play is made even more so by bringing the audience onto the stage, Hamilton says, describing the “theater within a theater” approach he also used to great success with Guild Hall’s productions of Uncle Vanya and The Cripple of Inishmaan.
The total effect of Hamilton’s choices, John Logan’s words and Slezak and Scheider’s performances should amount to a moving and thought provoking experience that audiences won’t soon forget.
Previews for RED are on May 21, 22 and 23 with opening night on Saturday, May 24. The play continues Wednesdays–Sundays at 8 p.m. through June 8. Due to the intimate nature of the staging (with the audience seated onstage) seating is limited and general admission tickets should be purchased in advance.
The John Drew Theater is located at Guild Hall (158 Main Street) in East Hampton. Call 631-324-0806 or visit guildhall.org for tickets and info.