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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
The Daily
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Forward Theater Company's Red paints a vibrant portrait of artist Mark Rothko
In living color
The play asks hard questions about the purpose of art and commerce.
Credit:Jen Trieloff

A Mark Rothko painting isn't just a work of art. It's an event.

With vibrant layers of color blocked in bold, rectangular shapes, Rothko's "multiforms" exude a radiant energy that many, including the artist himself, viewed as spiritual. Rothko is the protagonist in Red, the new Forward Theater Company production (through Feb. 2 at Overture Center's Playhouse). The Tony Award-winning play imagines a dialogue between Rothko (James DeVita) and a fictionalized assistant, Ken (Nate Burger), at a crucial time in the artist's life.

Rothko was at the height of his popularity in 1958, when the Seagram Company awarded him an unprecedented commission to create paintings for its new Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. Rothko eventually abandoned the high-profile assignment. Red investigates what may have convinced Rothko to give it up, in part through hard questions his assistant poses about the purpose of art and commerce, and the coming wave of change in the art world.

"It's the most balanced little piece of theater in a lot of ways," says director Laura Gordon. "It has balance between youth and age, mentor and student, and a really wonderful balance of argument between the two characters. It's intellect and emotion, great humor, and great depth and passion."

To highlight the show's visual themes, Forward's design team has re-created Rothko's Bowery studio, which at the time of the commission was located in an old gymnasium. The set has the feel of a gym, and eight of Rothko's murals from the period have been reproduced for the stage.

Classical music will lend authenticity to the production as well. Rothko always listened to it while painting, and Gordon says it will help Red evoke the emotions Rothko's work contains.

"When you listen to music and it strikes you emotionally, and you can't explain why... that's what Rothko wanted to have happen when people looked at his work," Gordon explains. "It takes time to look at his paintings. You can't just fly by. To have music underneath it, I find [that] really cool. It's this whole sensory experience."

This sensory experience spills beyond the Playhouse. Overture Center's art galleries have programmed a show titled Red, which features the work of Dale Malner, Trent Miller and David Wells.

Miller, the local artist who oversees the maker-focused Bubbler program at Central Library, has five paintings in the show.

"I generally do use a good amount of color, but I've never had this experience where I had to limit myself to one," he says.

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