A ‘Red’ Revival at John Drew

The two-character play is set in the studio of the painter Mark Rothko
Steve Hamilton and Victor Slezak on the set of “Red.” T.E. McMorrow

    The exploration of the relationship between artist, viewer, and art itself is at the core of “Red,” the 2010 Tony Award-winning play by John Logan, being revived in a black-box setting on the stage of Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater starting Wednesday.

    The two-character play is set in the studio of the painter Mark Rothko in New York beginning in 1958 as he creates the legendary murals for the Four Seasons restaurant. Steve Hamilton, the director of this production, Victor Slezak, who plays Rothko, and Christian Scheider, who plays Rothko’s young assistant, Ken, spoke about the play last week.

    When the idea of reviving “Red” at the John Drew Theater first came up, Mr. Slezak was Mr. Hamilton’s first and only choice to play the revolutionary painter.

    “I responded to the play and the argument about art, about what it means to be human,” Mr. Hamilton said last Thursday. “I immediately thought of Victor. He’s got the chops to play the part.” The “chops” Mr. Hamilton was referring to are both physical (Rothko is onstage throughout) and mental. “Red” is a play about ideas. Rothko’s artistic philosophy, Mr. Hamilton said, was heavily influenced by the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and Sigmund Freud.

    The choice of Mr. Scheider for the part of Ken, who spars with Rothko on art and philosophy, was a “no-brainer,” Mr. Hamilton said. He and his wife, Emma Walton Hamilton, were good friends with Christian Scheider’s parents, the actors Roy Scheider and Brenda King. “I knew Chris when he was growing up. He has a super intellect and a deep interest in philosophy,” Mr. Hamilton said.

    The actual rehearsal period for the production is less than three weeks, only 18 days in all. Such a short period of time requires total immersion in the material.

    “The first thing we did was read the bible, the James Breslin biography,” Mr. Hamilton said. “Mark Rothko: A Biography,” by James E.B. Breslin was first published in 1993. The book, Mr. Hamilton said, provides “a wonderful sort of trail of the New York School through 1930s right up to Rothko’s death.”

    One tool not available to Mr. Slezak in building his Rothko was a recording of the man in life. Yet the absence of that tool in and of itself proved to be a revelation for Mr. Slezak as he explored the inner soul of the character. “He died in 1970,” Mr. Slezak said last Thursday, “and I know that somebody out there has footage or a record of Rothko’s voice. But, try to find it. That gave me a key — how important it was for Rothko to control the image.” He then compared his own art form to that of Rothko’s. “It’s like the quintessential method actor,” Mr. Slezak said. “You can’t track him down. It is as if when he died, he took a broom and whisked all those footsteps away. All we are left with is the work.”

    Next was a visit to the New York City home of former Ambassador Donald Blinken. Mr. Blinken was a friend of Mr. Rothko’s, Mr. Hamilton said, and bought his collection of work directly from the artist. Mr. Scheider described the experience Friday.

    “I had seen Rothkos, but I had never been that close to one. Not one that size from that period,” Mr. Scheider said. “The way the room was laid out, I came around a corner. I looked at the painting. It was the size of the wall. I felt myself grow dizzy, falling into the painting. It is something to do with the painting and how the room was lit, all those things together allowed me to sink into the painting. That was a vital experience for me.”

    Mr. Slezak was particularly struck by a work that preceeded the Four Seasons mural time period. “It was from 1945, 1946, and it had a figure on it. I realized as I was viewing the painting that I was the figure. It took me back to Nietzsche and his description of the early Greek theater. There was no difference between the actor and the chorus, they were all the same. That was one of Rothko’s major goals, that there would be no difference between the viewer and the experience.”

    There will be no Rothkos on display during performances. Rather, the paintings will be in the mind’s eye in the very intimate playing space Mr. Hamilton explores for the third consecutive season. The audience is seated around the actors on the stage in a square. With only 75 seats, the theatrical setting is very intimate, and the connection between actor and audience is visceral, “sometimes a little too much for the audience,” Mr. Hamilton joked. “But most people enjoy it.”

    The theatricality of Rothko’s work has made a deep mpression on all three men. As in theater, where lighting is designed to advance and enhance a work, so to is the lighting of a Rothko painting.

    “There is a moment in the play where I say, ‘That’s why you keep the light so low on your paintings,’ ” Mr. Scheider said. “ ‘You need to help the illusion. You are like a magician. When the lights are low, it is like a bare stage, mysterious. It lets the pictures pulsate.’ ” Mr. Scheider described a key moment in the play for his character, who has been philosophically sparring with Rothko throughout. “I have this revelation when I really begin to see the work pulse, and I realize that I am making it pulse as a viewer. That’s why people are brought to tears when they look at a Rothko.”

    For Mr. Slezak, Rothko’s New York was not so far removed from the one he found himself in a generation later. Mr. Slezak and Mr. Hamilton were young fledgling actors when they met in New York in the late 1970s. “Life was so different. You could see Andy Warhol walking down the street. You would bump into Julian Schnabel, Mick Jagger, John Lennon. There was a freedom then. You didn’t have so much on the line.”

    “We were often auditioning for the same roles,” Mr. Hamilton recalled. “Very frustrating for me, here was Victor. Somehow I forgave him for that, and we got to be pals.”

    “Starving was a little easier,” Mr. Slezak said. He then reflected on the broad array of acting teachers in New York at that time. “Emma [Mr. Hamilton’s future wife] studied with Uta Hagen, who was my teacher.” He then repeated a line in the play. “ ‘The last of a dying breed.’ That period of time you had Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Uta Hagen, Stella Adler, Lee Strasburg, they were all alive. Sandy Meisner. I benefited. I used to sneak into Stella Adler’s class. Nobody ever stopped you, you know. I didn’t work with her, but I listened and I listened and I listened.”

    “I was lucky, to have people like Uta and Kim Stanley in my corner just before they were gone. To push and push and push and instill the ideal, not to settle,” Mr. Slezak said. “Just get to the point where we are real human beings instead of the corporate idea of what humanity is really like.”

    The relationship between Rothko and Ken is similar, in at least one respect, to that between Mr. Slezak and Mr. Scheider, the younger man explained. “I am a supporting part; this is his play. I am very inspired by what he is doing. I hope I can support him, maybe the same way as Ken is hoping he can support Rothko.”

    Mr. Scheider believes that despite the sparring between the two characters, the future would hold a revelation for Ken. “If you picked up this story in 10 years, Ken would attribute any good work he did to Rothko,” Mr. Scheider said.

    Mr. Slezak reflected on past and present, as presented by the Rothko of “Red.” “That is a huge part of this play. You are at the height of your powers and you realize, ‘Oh shit, I don’t have much time left. Even if I have 20 years, I don’t have much time. But, I’m here, it is working, I’ve got to get going!’ ”

Christian Scheider in his dressing room at Guild Hall T.E. McMorrow