Portland Center Stage just finished a run of the play “RED” about Mark Rothko. Originally staged in London, the play opened on Broadway two years ago and won the 2010 Tony for Best Play.

This two-person play by John Logan is set in Rothko’s studio in the late 1950’s.  He is working on paintings for the opening of New York’s elite Four Seasons restaurant. His new and much younger assistant, Ken, bears the brunt of his insecurities for taking on this prestigious, and lucrative, commercial commission. In their give and take the audience is treated to a thought-provoking lesson in mid-century art history and a glimpse into the heart and soul of Rothko’s passion for color.

I won’t do a review here – there are many good ones online –  but three quotes about color stuck in my head. The quotes come from separate sections of the play but together they illuminate the themes.

ROTHKO: There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend… One day the black will swallow the red.”

ROTHKO: Because black is the opposite of red. Not on the spectrum, but in reality.

KEN: In reality we both know black’s a tool, just like ochre or magenta. It has no affect. Seeing it as malevolent is a weird sort of chromatic anthropomorphizing”

Daniel Benzali played Rothko at the peak of his career yet concerned about his legacy. Patrick Alparone played Ken as the student turned teacher. I will need to read the screenplay to remember all the choice lines of dialogue. As an artist, a colorist, and a fan of abstract expressionism, it struck chords on many levels. I could go on and on about what I liked (and in some cases – disliked) but let’s just say I was thrilled to be able to see it.

Coming up: A visit to the Portland Museum’s Retrospective of Rothko’s work from the 1920’s through the 1960’s.