Forward Theater's 'Red' probes the psyche behind Rothko's art

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Nate Burger and Jim DeVita in Forward Theater's 'Red'

Few plays announce their intention as clearly and quickly as John Logan’s “Red,” which kicks off the New Year for Madison’s Forward Theater Co.

And few plays mount such an ardent pursuit of the meaning of art and — by inference — of life itself.

“What do you see?” asks artist Mark Rothko (Jim DeVita) of his newly hired assistant Ken (Nate Burger), who arrives at Rothko’s studio in New York’s Bowery for his first day of work in 1958. The artist is staring at his latest commission, a set of predominantly red murals for the soon-to-open Four Seasons Restaurant.

The play’s opening line is a challenge to Ken and the audience that has less to do with the paintings and more to do with understanding the purpose of being. It can also be interpreted as the artist’s plea for help in understanding the true value of his work and purpose in life, something about which he spends 90 fiery minutes discussing at length — as much with himself as with Ken.

Such is the stuff of which drama is made, but Logan plumbs the artist’s dark depths with an authenticity that contemporary theater often lacks.

Born to a Jewish pharmacist and his wife in Daugavpils, Latvia, in 1903, Marcus Rothkowitz emigrated to the U.S. with his family at age 10, settling in Portland, Ore. He moved to New York in 1923 and eventually made his name as an Abstract Expressionist, a label he rejected. He also resented being categorized with other artists who bore the label, such as Willem de Koonig and especially Jackson Pollack.

Fortune followed fame, but neither was enough for Rothko, whose unhealthy lifestyle contributed to the development of an aortic aneurysm. He also suffered from emotional instability, demonstrating symptoms that suggest he had a borderline personality disorder.

In 1970, Rothko was found dead in his kitchen, covered in blood. He had ingested an overdose of anti-depressants and, for good measure, sliced his arms with a razor found at his side.

Logan’s work, which won the 2010 Tony Award for best play, twice foreshadows the artist’s suicide, including once in a surprisingly ineffective scene in which Rothko’s hands are covered in red paint, a gesture that’s meaningless unless the audience knows the backstory.

But then, the real strength of “Red” lies in the intellectual discussions that give insight into Rothko’s genius and the angst that drove his unique approach to art.

“I am not your teacher,” Rothko admonishes Ken, before going on to spend the rest of the play in near-Socratic teacher-student dialogues about the meaning of life, the importance of education and the way intellect informs art. As the artist teaches the assistant, he also educates himself.

As Rothko, DeVita gives a powerful performance worthy of his stature as one of American Players Theatre’s leading lights. Occasionally known for dipping into his rather substantial bag of theatrical tricks to amuse and delight his audiences, DeVita practices admirable restraint as Rothko, without sacrificing any of the character’s power or pathos. There is as much going on under Rothko’s skin as there is outside it, which draws us further into DeVita’s masterful characterization.

Directed by the Milwaukee Rep’s Laura Gordon, “Red” moves along at lightening speed to the sounds of various classical LPs playing on the artist’s turntable. One of the most effective scenes is played without words as Rothko and Ken “prep” a large canvas with a solid layer of maroon paint, alternating sides in an artists’ dance to a sprightly chamber piece that brings renewed energy late in the production.

Forward Theatre, like the Madison Rep before it, is known for its substantial technical capabilities, and the set and properties by Charles J. Trieloff II set the bar even higher. The production's success has as much to do with the production’s creative team as the source material. Rothko’s studio and the dozen or so oversize canvases on stage create an artistic cocoon free from public interference and devoid of the natural light the artist clearly disdains.

“Paintings should be illuminated from within,” Rothko says to Ken. One could say as much about “Red,” which shines with exceptional radiance in what may turn out to be one of the year’s best productions.

On stage

Forward Theater’s production of John Logan’s Red runs through Feb. 2 at The Playhouse in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. Call  (608) 258-417 or go to either or