‘Red’ attempts to define experiences through color

Feb. 4, 2013

Eleanor Skelton
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The scene opens with an abstract red painting center stage and the modern painter Rothko who is smoking his cigarette and nudging a 20-something apprentice wannabe into the painting. “What do you see?” Rothko asks.

UCCS Theatreworks’ “Red,” which runs Jan. 31 through Feb. 17, asks the audience to revisit how each individual’s experience colors his perceptions and humanity through a discussion of all that the color red embodies and what art means to humanity as a whole.

The plot centers on a series of red abstract paintings the historical Mark Rothko was commissioned to create for the Four Seasons Restaurant, a project that was left unfinished.

In the play, Joel Leffert plays the part of Rothko. Since Leffert wasn’t originally cast to play the character, he only had two and a half days to prepare for opening night.

Rothko and his apprentice Ken (Jordan Coughtry) are caught in the middle of the creative process and an attempt to define human experience with three colors of paint – red, black and white.

Red symbolizes blood and life for both artists. Ken associates red and white with his parents’ murder, but Rothko views life itself as a struggle between red and black, which for him means death.

Rothko says, “There is one thing that I fear in life, my friend. One day the black will swallow the red.”

Later, he elaborates, “We are foolish, we human beings – we try to make the red black. But the black is always there.” Ken replies, “We look for that red, that glimmer of hope.”

The artists cover a blank canvas with red paint at the climax of the play to the pace of sprightly classical music, demonstrating the artists’ expressiveness to cover the white canvas, which, for Ken, is associated with death.

Ken and Rothko discuss the painting centered on the easel on stage, but then turn back to the audience, commenting and gesturing as if at finished works hung on the studio walls.

“They change, they move, they pulse … Do these pictures pulse when they are alone?”

The audience is incorporated into Rothko’s mural series, blending the distinction between an inanimate work of art and a human being.

In the first scene, Rothko is wearing a plaid shirt and casual clothing while Ken is dressed in a business suit. Rothko, an overbearing mentor figure, tells him that artists do not work that way, and for most of the play, both wear plaid.

In one of the final scenes, Rothko enters wearing a suit and Ken takes the role of instructor, telling Rothko how he has been wrong about art and life.

“My friend, I don’t think you would recognize a real human being if he were standing right here in front of you,” he says, further emphasizing the connection between people and artwork.

A record player on the side of the stage plays primarily classical sporadically throughout the production. At one point Ken attempts to put on a jazz record, much to Rothko’s dismay.

This contrast between the orderly music and the apparent chaos present in the murals and the creative process also creates depth throughout the plot’s execution.

As the lights dim, Rothko asks once more, “What do you see?”

“Red,” Ken answers.