Cleveland Play House's production of John Logan's RED is currently playing at the Allen Theatre in downtown Cleveland. With incredibly strong performances from Bob Ari and Randy Harrison, the show is thought-provoking and even challenges the audience to look inside themselves.
RED tells the story of Mark Rothko (Ari), the famed American abstract artist. He has just landed the most lucrative commission of his career – creating a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. Rothko sees the project as his defining moment but Ken (Harrison), his young assistant, starts to challenge that vision. He thinks the project is Rothko's way of "selling out" and not being true to himself. This observation plays to Rothko's anxieties and insecurities. Ultimately, the men help each other confront their flaws with a bit of soul-searching interspersed between the arguments.
Veteran stage actor Bob Ari stars as painter Mark Rothko. He has appeared on Broadway (FROST/NIXON, THE CONSTANT WIFE, BELLS ARE RINGING and LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR), Off-Broadway and at regional theatres across the country, as well as landing parts in several television shows and movies. I recently had the opportunity to ask Ari a few questions about his role in RED …
What drew you to the role of Mark Rothko? What's the most challenging part of playing a real person as opposed to a fictional character?
First of all, I was drawn to the role as soon as I saw the play on Broadway. I am always drawn to complex characters (like Richard Nixon, which I stood-by for on [Broadway] and eventually got to perform for two weeks on the road). It's Rothko's contradictions and his passion for his art that I finally was attracted to and identified with.
The main challenge in portraying someone who actually existed is assimilating the biographical information that is available together with the character which the playwright has created into a coherent whole. Of course, with a character like Nixon you also have the problem of portraying someone so universally known that everyone has their own relationship to the man. And you're never going to fulfill all the expectations.
Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
My favorite moment in the show definitely has to be the painting of the canvas. The play is such an intellectual and verbal fencing match between the two characters (and it must be said how much I love working with Randy [Harrison as Ken]) that when the painting comes up, the physicality of it is like a rest. Besides, it's just plain fun.
Were you familiar with Rothko's work before joining RED? Have you had the opportunity to see any of his pieces in person?
I've always been a fan of abstract expressionism but have been mostly involved with the work of Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. I was acquainted with Rothko but never paid much attention to him. Needless to say, he is now my favorite abstract painter, although I have always been largely a fan of German Expressionism, my favorite all-time painter being Oskar Kokoschka. However, through his play I have not only learned about the life of Rothko but also the philosophy behind his work and how to look at them. Oddly enough I have not had the opportunity to see one in person since doing the play but look forward to the experience.
As is asked so many times in the show, what do you see when you study his paintings?
Primarily I think the most important thing about looking at Rothko is giving it time. Two years ago, while touring in FROST/NIXON, I went to the Rothko Chapel in Houston and after spending about a half hour in that place I realized that I was feeling the paintings begin to vibrate and float. I walked out of there with such a feeling of peace throughout my entire body that I can truthfully say that it was the closest thing to a religiously inspired transcendent experience I've ever had.
Do you have any other upcoming projects once RED is complete?
After this run is over I'll have seven weeks before I start rehearsals for SLEUTH at the Olney Theatre Center [in Maryland] which opens June 12th. Another two-character play … all those words!
Is there anything else you'd like to share about the production?