This weekend, two actors and one canvas will fill an entire stage.
An undergraduate student production of John Logan’s “Red” opens tomorrow night in the Davenport-Pierson Theater. The play follows the abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko, played by Conor Bagley ’16, through the years 1958 and 1959 as he grapples with a commission to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram building in New York City. Bagley highlighted the degree of accuracy to which the play depicts Rothko’s character.
“A lot of [the play] is fiction but Logan did so much incredible research,” Bagley said. “If anything is a good depiction of what life probably was like for Mark Rothko, I think this play does it.”
Bagley said that in the play, much of Rothko’s internal conflict stems from his position as an artist — his character struggles to make art on commission for the wealthy elite while staying true to his desire to create meaningful and memorable works. According to Bagley’s assessment of his character, Rothko wanted his works to be understood, to the point that Rothko treated his paintings as if they were his own children. Bagley also highlighted the tension between Rothko’s perception of art as a serious endeavor and his distaste for contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol and Frank Stella, whom he criticizes for pandering to the public. In the play, Bagley explained, this tension drives the conflict between Rothko and his fictional assistant Ken, who is torn between these two ways of approaching art.
Ivan Kirwan-Taylor ’18, who plays Ken, described his character as youthful and precocious, but also well aware of his position in relation to Rothko. Director Eliana Kwartler ’16 noted that the production is namely about the relationship between Rothko and Ken, the only two characters in “Red.” She said that over the course of the rehearsal process, the interactions between Bagley and Kirwan-Taylor sometimes mirror those of the characters they play.
“They have moments where they’re buddy-buddy and trying to learn, and moments where they get at each other a little bit,” Kwartler said.
Ensemble members cited the canvas in the center of the set as a focal point of the play. In one scene, Rothko and Ken paint the canvas such that the backdrop of the set changes from completely white to completely red. The scene is representative of how Rothko’s use of color “consumes the viewer,” Kwartler said.
“That’s a visually stunning moment and it’s a joy to do,” Kirwan-Taylor said. “There’s painting, there’s music, there’s just a great deal of art going on at all times.”
Set designer Caroline Francisco ’18 said the set effectively resembles and functions as a working artist’s studio. She explained that the actors can pick up and work with props such as brushes and jars, interacting with the set as opposed to just walking around it.
Francisco added that the set represents the sense of order Rothko demanded in his life — as seen in the central canvas and easel — while props that represent negative feelings of frustration and sadness are cast to the edges of the stage.
According to Kwartler, “Red” reaches beyond Yale’s theater community by engaging with real historical events. She cited a visit by the cast to the Yale University Art Gallery, which currently has two of Rothko’s canvases on view. Kwartler noted that the presence of Rothko’s works on campus provides an opportunity to compare and contrast them with the Seagram murals featured in the play, while allowing the audience to note the breadth of Rothko’s art.
The Seagram Murals commission consists of 30 works in total.