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Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013

Mark Rothko Sees Red

Madison’s Forward Theater presents John Logan’s Tony winner

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When artist Mark Rothko asks his assistant, “What do you see?” he is asking himself the same question. When the assistant challenges Rothko’s abstract esthetic, he inadvertently opens the door to the great artist’s creative demons, which threaten to crush him under the weight of his own oeuvre.

Such thoughts lay at the heart of John Logan’s play Red, which captures Rothko on the eve of his most celebrated commission – a set of abstract murals painted in shades of red for Manhattan’s famed Four Seasons Restaurant. The 2010 winner of six Tony Awards, including Best Play, launches the new year for Madison’s Forward Theater, opening Jan. 16 at The Playhouse in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.

Rothko, born Marcus Rothkowitz to a Jewish pharmacist and his wife in Daugavpils, Latvia, in 1903, became one of the 20th century’s most influential abstract Modernists. Influenced by artists Paul Klee, Georges Roualt and early American avant-gardists, and inspired by the writings of Friedrich Nietszche, Rothko created an astounding 836 canvases before taking his own life at age 66 on Feb. 25, 1970, in the kitchen of his New York studio.

Logan’s narrative chronicles a time emblematic of both Rothko’s growing popularity and his temperamental personality. Directed by the Milwaukee Rep’s Laura Gordon, the two-actor play stars American Players Theatre favorite James DeVita as the tormented artist and Nate Burger as his assistant.

Red presents a one-act 90-minute snapshot of a time when Rothko’s public and private personalities collided in a fierce conflict of trust vs. betrayal, common themes in the life of a man whom medical experts believe may have suffered from borderline personality disorder. Whether Rothko fulfilled his commission or not is less important than what the body of work had done to him and for him as both an artist and human being.

In the end the questions remains: what do you see?

Forward Theatre’s production of Red runs through Feb. 2.

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