In 1958, abstract impressionist painter Mark Rothko landed a commission worth $2.5 million in today’s currency to paint a series for Manhattan’s exclusive Four Seasons Restaurant.
The Tony Award-winning play, “Red, “ in which Rothko and his young assistant heatedly debate the artist’s motives as they construct the pricey canvases, has become one of the most produced plays in the U.S., says David Gammons, director of Boston’s version of “Red.”
“I’ve made a deliberate attempt to steer clear of websites, images and even reviews of other productions,” says Gammons, who proudly insists that he has not seen the show elsewhere. “I want to keep ours as fresh and uncorrupted by other people’s choices as possible.”
Playwright John Logan provided the script, but Gammons and this production’s actors and designers had free reign to interpret their show’s visuals, including the set, a well-researched amalgamation of Rothko’s real-life studios.
“It’s been fun to marry the realism of Rothko’s studio space with theatricality, remembering that this is a play, after all, not a documentary,” Gammons says.
The theme illustrated in Rothko’s signature style of painting — blocks of color floating on contrasting background — also exists in the storyline.
“The play sets up this tension, as in the paintings themselves,” Gammons explains. “Red is the life force, the drive, the passion — while black represents the inesca-pable knowledge of our own mortality.”
Rothko felt this tension his whole life, and committed suicide in 1970.
No arts degree?required
Playgoers who can’t distinguish a Rothko from a Monet can relax.
“This piece is not alienating if you don’t know a lot about art,” says Gammons. “You don’t have to come in an expert on art history to engage with the characters.”