Pittsburgh Public Theater

Jack Cutmore-Scott and Jeff Still
John Logan's neatly constructed play Red offers a glimpse into the mind of abstract painter Mark Rothko approaching the last decade of his life. Rothko, born Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia, had a fascinating upbringing, his father instilling in him the values of an education and a social conscience. He emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 10, and his passion for art began at around the age of 20. But we don't learn a lot about Rothko's early life in this play, nor do we learn much about his life outside the studio in in the time in which the play is set. What we learn is that Mark Rothko was an opinionated, bombastic, intense artist. Though the play depicts a (to use the term loosely) relationship between Rothko and a fictitious young assistant named Ken, it can mostly be described as a monologue by Rothko on his relationship with art. Rothko is, in his own way, sharing his knowledge and experience with Ken, but he clearly does not really care about the young man. Ken takes it all in, listens, answers when asked, and works as a dutiful servant for some time before, having taken enough or maybe learned enough, he needs to break free of this impersonal arrangement.

In Jeff Still's hands, Mark Rothko is high volume, with a focused energy that can be felt in the air. He carries the role, nearly the play, with a sure hand, and it is easy to get caught up in all his talk, feeling on edge as if we might be the next to be ordered to mix pigments for the a painting. As Ken, Jack Cutmore-Scott has the more difficult task of expressing while reacting; the young art student has far less to say, as he goes about the tasks of preparing materials for Rothko's work, cleaning up, picking up lunch, etc. By play's end, Cutmore-Scott shows a change in the character, a subtle maturing as he has absorbed all he can from Rothko's rants and is ready to move on. The play is not without humor, and the actors don't overplay or underplay that aspect.

Red is set in 1958-1959, when Rothko took a commission to provide a series of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in the Joseph Seagram and Sons building on Park Avenue. His wrestling with the idea of working on such a commercial project is at the heart of some of the railings in the script. The actual murals he created, but did not ultimately provide to the Seagrams, are now housed in galleries in London, Japan and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Throughout the play, the actors prepare frames and canvases, mix paints and create a few large (red) paintings. They move canvases from work space to storage on hoists provided in Michael Schweikardt's detailed and realist set of a workspace in an old gymnasium. Lighting by Rui Rita is essential to the artistic scene. Director Pamela Berlin keeps things balanced well.

Red continues through December 11 at the O'Reilly Theater. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit

Photo: Pittsburgh Public Theater

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