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‘RED’ Looks at Brilliant, Conflicted Artist
Monday, March 6, 2023


If you’ve ever looked at an abstract painting and said, “Why, I could do that!” you might want to sit under the spell of American playwright John Logan’s “RED.”

The play, which opened in December 2009 in London, gets inside the mind of Mark Rothko, one of the founding fathers of abstract expressionism in America in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Liberty Theatre Company will present the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Play. The play will take the stage at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 9-19 at the Sun Valley Community School. There will be two 2 p.m. matinees on Sunday, March 12 and 19.

The play, under the direction of Claudia McCain, features Joel Vilinsky as Mark Rothko and David Kepner as his assistant Ken.

Opinionated, egotistical and pedantic, Rothko possessed a driving force, passion, towering intellect and an unwillingness to compromise for the almighty dollar. In one case, for instance, he returned the money he’d accepted to paint murals for New York’s Seagram Building and donated the murals instead to the Tate Museum of Modern Art in London.

He felt strongly that art should have truth and meaning and act on viewers’ soul. Today, Rothko’s works have become some of the most sought after reproductions for art consumers all over the world.

The play, named for a very red abstract painting, opens in 1958 after the Seagrams Corporation has just awarded the Latvian-born artist the biggest commission in the history of modern art: A series of murals for New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant.

He works furiously with his young assistant, who wants to act like a sponge, learning as much as he can from Rothko. But Rothko looks at his abstract expressionism with an eye to the past, and  his assistant looks at it through the lens of pop art, which is beginning to make inroads into the art world.

And Rothko faces the agonizing possibility that his crowning achievement could also become his undoing as his assistant gains the confidence to challenge him.

Essentially, the play becomes “a combative Socratic dialogue between teacher and pupil,” said New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley: “Rothko, you see, wants to be understood. And that requires understanding the whole history of Western painting, and Nietzsche and Freud and Jung and Shakespeare, to cite just a few of the cultural names that are not so much dropped as flung here.”

Indeed, the play opens a window onto Rothko’s views on art, society, philosophy, history and his perspective on his own work, said Director Claudia McCain.

“Beautifully created, Logan uses much of Rothko’s own language to tell the story of this brilliant, intense, ambitious, conflicted artist. It is an energetic, captivating story out what it takes to find one’s place in the art world,” she added.

Rothko’s assistant is an amalgamation of many different people. He introduces young contemporary artist’s views that are beginning to supplant Rothko’s generation. And he challenges Rothko about the essence of creating art for the purity of the work.

Rothko, she said, was an intellectual, broadly versed in philosophy, poetry, history, mythology and music.

“He was deeply passionate about music and would spend hours listening to Mozart and Schubert. He traveled to Europe frequently to immerse himself in the work of the old masters and was particularly influenced by Rembrandt, Turner, Michelangelo, and later, Matisse. He was a conflicted man who longed for acceptance and yet railed against the established galleries, museums, and critics of his time,” she said. “In his lifetime, he received the critical and commercial success that he longed for, but he struggled long and hard to get there.”

Tickets are $35 for general admission and $15 for students, available at or 208-582-8388.

Joe Lavigne designed the set; Alison Higdon, the costumes; Jay Cutler, the lights, and Owen E. Parmele, the props. Tim Black is the technical director; Castor Sullivan, in charge of the stage crew, and Kaitie Branton, the scenic change artist. Audra Honaker is the stage manager.


Curator and art historian Kristin Poole will offer a free lecture about the work of Mark Rothko, the artist whom “RED” is about.

The lecture will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 15, at the Sun Valley Community School Theatre. It will be presented by The Liberty Theatre Company and sponsored by Jeri L. Wolfson.

The lecture will be followed by a Q&A with Poole and Claudia McCain, director of RED.

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