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Burdette Parks as Rothko (right) and Tyler Nye as Ken, his assistant, in Pendragon Theatre's production of "Red".  Photo: Bonnie Brewer
Burdette Parks as Rothko (right) and Tyler Nye as Ken, his assistant, in Pendragon Theatre's production of "Red". Photo: Bonnie Brewer

Preview: "Red" at Pendragon Theatre in Saranac Lake

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Pendragon Theatre has opened its summer season with the award-winning play "Red." The two character bio-drama, written by John Logan, is set in Mark Rothko's art studio in New York City in the late 1950s. Rothko was a well-known abstract expressionist known for images which featured large, and luminous color blocks. In the play, Rothko is painting a group of murals commissioned by an exclusive restaurant, and the story follows the initiation of Ken, a young assistant, into Rothko's world. Pendragon's production features a local cast, and is sponsored by the Adirondack Artists Guild.

Todd Moe spoke with director Kim Bouchard, who also teaches drama at SUNY Potsdam. Bouchard says she was intrigued by the script's intense dialogue between teacher and pupil, and its exploration of art, artists and generational clashes.

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Todd Moe
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Kim Bouchard: Those people who know Rothko, red featured prominently as one of the principle color palettes that he used, and variations on red as well. So red is iconic of him and also iconic of his ideas— his ideas of how color represents more than just the color itself, but has other layers of meaning.

And so for me, the play explores ideas about art, what it means to be an artist and the role of the artist in society in a much larger sense. And that’s the philosophical ideas of the play and, as someone who loves the ideas of a play, as well as the dramatic energy of the play, I found that this play written by John Logan is a beautiful marriage of both strong thematic, and interesting and provocative ideas as well as a really well-written dramatic story.

So over the course of an hour and a half, we see really good drama being told as well and this dynamic conflict between the older artist and the younger artist. It’s really exciting to be able to do a play specifically about art and artists.

Todd Moe: It's set in 1958, the threshold of the sixties.

KB: Yes, yes. That’s the other idea that intrigued me is that this play brings up ideas about generational differences, really foreshadows the youth movement that comes into full bloom shortly thereafter with the Students for a Democratic Society, the SDS, in 1963-’64 in Berkley and goes on to develop the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was already starting certainly among African-Americans and people who are advocating voting rights, and Brown vs. Board of Education.

So all of this movement in afoot, and were taken within that larger social context, we’re brought into 222 Bowery, which is his art studio at the time. So way down at the very downtown of New York City, he finds a studio. He deliberately doesn’t want a studio in the middle of Manhattan with all the other artists. He wants to be far away and so he chooses the Bowery. And within that studio, and within this enclave— in fact, at one point his assistant refers to the studio as a “hermetically sealed submarine”— so it has this sense of, like, an island.

And at the same time, the issues that are coming up are very much that generation clash that’s really about to go into full bloom between the generation of Rothko, the parents, who were also revolutionists in their own way, but the next culture of youth that's coming up.

TM: Talk a little bit about the challenge or the opportunities with a small cast set in an artist’s studio. I mean, what do you for blocking? Is there a lot of blocking and what’s the movement involved in a show like this?

KB: Yeah, its takes place in one setting. It doesn’t change sets. It’s what we call a unit set: we’re in that studio, and that’s where it is. What’s wonderful about the play, and also the challenge about it is that, as Rothko says, “We work here. This is not a tea salon.” This is a working studio, and sure enough, there’s a burner, they mix their paints, they build their stretchers, they stretch canvas, they paint onstage. And this is part of the action of the play.

So is there blocking? There’s a lot of stuff going on in the midst of also a dramatic story being told. So John Logan, the playwright, has written this wonderful, dynamic piece where there’s a real, working artist’s studio onstage and we see it working.

TM: And some really great dialogue, I’d imagine, with two characters to sustain this for an hour and a half. One of the opening lines is when the young assistant first joins him, Rothko asks him who his favorite artists is, and Ken says “Jackson Pollock,” right?

KB: Yeah.

TM: So there you go, there’s a nice way to kick off their relationship.

KB: Much to the chagrin of Mark Rothko, who then does have an opportunity to talk about Pollock, Picasso, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Matisse. There’s an art history lesson, not that it’s boring, but he references and places himself clearly in the historical world of a Euro and Euro-American artist. And so it helps us understand, too.

So it’s a play that, without being didactic— it really isn’t a didactic play, it isn’t about teaching us about Rothko— it’s about the life of an artist and the struggles that that artist goes through as he grapples with who is he as he gets older.

The play starts when he’s 55 years old and we just see two years of his life, but they’re two significant, really important years of his life where he’s going through a lot of self doubt and questioning, which is so fascinating to see. And what provokes it is his young assistant.

It is a dynamic dialogue, there’s a lot, it isn’t just telling stories, it’s actually engaging in ideas and the conflict between not only two men (and that’s a thing I’ve loved about doing this being a woman director working with two men to do that study of masculinity), this is a play that’s a study about masculinity. Who are these two men in relationship with each other? And it’s not sexual, though you may make the argument that sexuality infuses all of our lives and who we are, but the play doesn’t deal specifically with that. But it does deal with relationship. And it does deal with friendship, and the friendship of an older man and a younger man.

So I’ve really enjoyed that, too, as an artist myself, enjoyed exploring; what does it mean to tell the story of two men? That’s been a privilege for me, actually.

"Red" opened at Pendragon Theatre in Saranac Lake last night and continues through July 5. It’s directed by Kim Bouchard and features two local actors, Berdett Parks as Mark Rothko and Tyler Nigh as his young assistant, Ken. You’ll find dates, times, and ticket information of the Pendragon website. And also, the play is sponsored by the Adirondack Artist Guild and they have an exhibit, “Adirondack Interpretations of Red: Works by members of the Adirondack Artist Guild.” That’s on display through July 5 at the Pendragon Theatre Gallery (sample the exhibit.)


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