Check out this coverage of Red from Los Angeles Downtown:
When audiences enter the Mark Taper Forum to see John Logan’s play about Mark Rothko, they’ll immediately be drawn into the world of the Abstract Expressionist painter.
That’s because for approximately 20 minutes before the show starts, actor Alfred Molina sits with his back toward the seats, staring at a painting flooded in red. This not only allows Molina to get into character, but also sets the dramatic tone for a play about an intense artist struggling to stay relevant in a fast changing world.
Red, a two-character bio-drama, opens Sunday, Aug. 12 (previews are now underway) and continues through Sept. 9. The 90-minute production premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2009 and moved to the Golden Theatre on Broadway in 2010, where it won six Tony Awards including Best Play. Directed by Michael Lange, it is set in the 1950s in Rothko’s New York studio. The artist, known for his bold abstract paintings, is working on a series of commissioned pieces for a new Four Seasons restaurant.
Jonathan Groff, from the TV show “Glee,” portrays Ken, Rothko’s recently hired assistant and a painter himself. He quickly learns more than he ever anticipated about his often angry but brilliant boss.
Rothko is feeling his grasp of the art world slipping away and is threatened by a new generation of artists. He’s both teacher and adversary to his young assistant, who represents the new wave of Pop Art that looms on the horizon.
It’s a bit of a return for Center Theatre Group, which programs the Taper. CTG Artistic Director Michael Ritchie had Molina in a lead role in a 2006 Taper production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (in which he was also onstage when the audience entered). When Ritchie first saw Red, he knew he had to bring it to Los Angeles.
“I’ve seen thousands of plays over my lifetime, and when I saw this play, the production and performance in New York, it ranked in the top 10 of my theater experiences,” said Ritchie. “I’m personally smitten by this play and the production.”
Ritchie said, at its essence, he sees the story as a piece that talks about the creation of art. He thinks it will inspire others to be more creative.
“I was surprised by the level of emotion it sparked in me,” he said. “It was inspiring on a professional and a personal level.”
Role of a Lifetime
Born in Russia in 1903, Rothko moved to the United States with his family and settled in Oregon when he was 10. He attended Yale, where his studies ranged from European history to mathematics, physics and economics. He left college for a career in art, which spanned about 50 years. He committed suicide in 1970.
Rothko’s artistic style varied in his early years, but he is best known for his large paintings depicting rectangles and bold, vibrant colors. In May his 1961 oil painting titled “Orange, Red, Yellow,” sold at a Christie’s auction in New York for $86.9 million.
Molina didn’t know much about the painter before originating the role in London. Still, he said that by page 11 of his first read of Logan’s script, he was hooked.
“There was something about it that just kind of grabbed me,” he said.
The British-born actor’s extensive Hollywood credits include roles in the films Boogie Nights, Spider Man 2, The Da Vinci Code and a short but memorable appearance in Raiders of the Los Ark. He portrayed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in the 2002 film Frida.
Dressed in cargo shorts and a short-sleeved buttoned shirt left un-tucked, with his head cleanly shaved for the role, the 59-year-old said the part jumped out at him.
“The more I read it I realized, and I’m not being hyperbolic, this is the part of a lifetime,” he said. “It’s a wonderful role with all the difficulties associated with a good role, all the inherit contradictions and conflicts.”
Molina prepared for the role by reading as much about Rothko as he could. He also studied the artist’s paintings.
Molina said he enjoys the extremes that are explored in Red. There is Rothko’s impatience, driven by his passion, and the evolution of the characters from the master and student relationship to the moment when that dynamic changes.
Groff, who saw Molina in the play in New York, said he knew he wanted to play Ken right away.
“It’s beautifully written. It’s an incredible play about art and the relationship with these two guys,” he said.
The 27-year-old actor will be familiar to TV audiences for his role as Jesse St. James in Fox’s musical comedy series “Glee.” He has also appeared on shows such as “The Good Wife.”
This isn’t his first time on stage. In 2006 he originated the role of Melchoir Gabor in the musical Spring Awakening. He said his new role gave him the chance to work with one of his acting idols.
“[Molina] was one of those actors I put on a pedestal,” Groff said. “He’s the real deal, an incredible actor.”
That enthusiasm shows through in Groff’s portrayal of Ken, Ritchie noted.
“He has that wonderful ability in this part to express that youthful enthusiasm,” he said.
Molina, meanwhile, admits that before he began preparing for the play he would look at abstract art like Rothko’s and question what it’s supposed to be or what it should look like. Later, that changed.
“I began to really love the work and I began to understand that notion of you don’t ask what it is, what does it mean, or what’s it supposed to be,” he said. “That’s really the wrong question. The right question is, how does it make you feel?”
It’s a question he and others hope audiences will be asking after they see Red.
Red runs Aug. 12-Sept. 9 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org.
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