Thursday, April 7, 2016

Art Isn't Easy

"Orange and Yellow" by Mark Rothko

Back in 1931, the Westport Country Playhouse’s inaugural season, several plays were presented in repertory, that is, several plays alternated daily. This also occurred in the 1932 and 1935 seasons, but the repertory concept was soon abandoned and wasn’t attempted again until the mid-1960s. That’s about to change this year, for the Playhouse will be opening its 2016 season with two plays in repertory, Red, by John Logan, and Art, by Yasmina Reza, in a translation by Christopher Hampton. Both plays won Tonys for Best Play, Art in 1998 and Red in 2010.

Yasmina Reza

John Logan

The idea of attempting this has been gestating for several years, and when Mark Lamos, the Playhouse’s artistic director, who is also directing both plays, read the scripts he believed there was a compelling reason to present them in tandem.

Mark Lamos

In its simplest form, Art is about how we evaluate and quantify art as both commodity and possession, while Red focuses on the mystique of creating art.

In the style of Reza’s other well-known play, God of Carnage, Art begins innocently enough with Serge (to be played by John Skelley) buying a painting for an exorbitant amount, a painting created by an artist named Antrios (based on the real-life painter Robert Ryman).

"Series # 17 (White)" -- Robert Ryman

He believes his friends, Marc (Benton Greene) and Yvan (Sean Dugan), will approve of his acquisition. When Serge urges Marc to look at the painting “from this angle,” Marc’s response is: “You paid two hundred thousand francs for this shit?” The “shit,” as it were, is a painting that is, well, white, or white-on-white – think lines of milk poured on a field of snow. Yvan’s response is relative: when he is with Marc he agrees the painting is worthless, when he is with Serge he approves. This monochromatic work of art will be the catalyst for a testing of friendship and heated discussions about what we value and why we value it.

Mark Rothko in his studio. Photo by Henry Elkan
Set in the late 50s, Red brings us inside an artist’s studio – Mark Rothko’s studio, to be specific. Much like Ryman, Rothko is, although he shuns the description, an abstract expressionist, but his paintings are anything but monochromatic. As Serge urged Marc to see his prized painting from a different “angle,” Rothko (Stephen Rowe) asks his new assistant, Ken (Patrick Andrews), “What do you see?”

The casts of"Art" and "Red," from left. Benton Greene, John Skelley, Stephen Rose, Sean Dugan, Patrick Andrews, and Mark Lamos, director. Photo by Peter Chenot 

Rothko has been commissioned to paint a series of murals to be hung in the Four Seasons restaurant, which is to be nested inside the Seagram’s building currently under construction. Ken, an artist himself, is initially nothing more than a gofer, running out to buy cigarettes and mixing paints, but he soon begins to challenge Rothko’s artistic theories and the integrity of producing art for a commercial venue.

While the color white is central to Art, it is, as the play’s title suggests, red that is central to Logan’s play, for not only does Rothko provide both a philosophical and psychological evaluation of Matisse’s painting, “Red Studio,” in a revealing moment he tells Ken: "There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend... One day the black will swallow the red."

"Red Studio" by Henri Matisse
It is challenging enough to board one play, but to prepare two at the same time can be somewhat daunting. Recently, I met with Lamos at Theatre Row Studios in Manhattan, where he is rehearsing both plays, to talk with him about the decision to return to the repertory format, the challenges inherent, and his take on the two plays’ synergy.

My initial question for Lamos was “Why?”

He smiled, shrugged, and said, “I though it would be interesting, that’s all.” He went on to explain: “We read both plays for season consideration over the years and somehow, two years ago, it just coalesced as an idea: why don’t we try to do them together and see if they speak to each other.” In essence, the decision, as Lamos put it, “was just a little bit of a caprice.”

The decision, however, was not without its challenges. Lamos initially downplayed the task. “It’s not yet as difficult as I thought it might be,” he said, “but I’ve been gearing up for it for quite awhile. I think the one area I’m feeling a little challenged is wishing we had just a little more rehearsal time for one of them.” Lamos declined to name which of the two plays he was referring to. “You know,” he explained, “it’s like having two children. One needs a little more TLC. I’m also finding it (referring to the play in need of a bit more “tender loving care”) just a little bit more of a challenge as a director, which I knew would happen, but I’m having to think about the play – I’m having to overturn how I thought about it and come to another understanding of it as we are working on it.”

The initial idea that the two plays would “talk” to each other is still in place, but as Lamos works with the actors, he has started to gain a greater appreciation for one of the plays. “I’m very impressed with Red,” he said. “I’m more impressed every day. I just find the themes of the play are very relevant to my work and the way I think about art and the way I think about making art, and the philosophy behind artists’ work. All of this I find very exciting to work on every day. Even thought it’s fictionalized, you’re in the room with Mark Rothko, this titan, who thinks about what he makes in such a powerful way and with so many ramifications: music and philosophy and religion. All of them come into play and they’re just great fun to ‘chew on’ with the actors as we get deeper and deeper into it.”

Turning to the other play, Art, Lamos noted that “what’s wonderful is the almost dance-like quality of the words. It’s ‘Boulevard,’ French theater,” he said, referring to a style of theater that emerged in France in the 18th century and became associated with the bourgeoisie, with dialogue that is realistic but often set in a somewhat hyper-realistic situation with the intent of surprising the audience.

“The dialogue is elegant, light of touch, and finding that tone is very exciting when it happens,” Lamos said, “and it’s a real chamber piece, it’s a trio. The actors have to understand that they are playing the same music all of the time even as the key changes and the rhythm changes. That’s fascinating. It’s much more of an ensemble play than Red is.”

As for the plays, so different in style, speaking to each other, Lamos made these points. “Red begins with the words, ‘What do you see?’ and the two characters are made to look, to constantly evaluate what they are making and what they are perceiving, and in Art the characters are made  to look as well, and they jump to conclusions. Both paintings – the painters in both plays -- are pretty much of the same school – creating overall abstractions that are very sensual and extremely abstract, for better or worse, and with lots of strange use of color here and there. So both plays are about looking at art and in both plays, art has this enormous effect on the five men in the two plays. It pushes them apart, it brings them together, it causes them to reevaluate what they are looking at, it causes them to reevaluate their relationships with each other; they’re constantly having to adjust themselves to art.”

 However, there’s something else going on in the two plays, which only have male characters. Lamos addressed this point as well. “Both plays are also very much about male relationships and how men react to each other, how they deal with each other, how their egos drive them. So a lot of what is very interesting to work on is the ‘maleness’ of the plays, the ‘maleness’ that the paintings bring forth in terrible ways or good ways.”

Both productions are in periods of gestation, and a lot of work still has to be done, some of it awaiting the moment when the rehearsals move from Manhattan to the stage at Westport. For example, it is there that certain decisions about how to handle the transitions in Art – there are no true scene changes – will be dealt with. Lamos’s original thoughts were to handle these changes with sound cues or subtle lighting changes. His tech crew suggested that the actors themselves will be able to handle it. It will be worked out in the tech rehearsals. At least for Red, one production decision has already been made, the “paint” that the actors will be sloshing about will be a mixture of corn starch and pigment powder.

 There was also the question of the sets for the two plays, a challenge for scenic designer Allen Moyer. Since the plays will be shown on alternate nights, the sets, perforce, have to be relatively simple. For Red, the entire stage will be Rothko’s studio, with one complete “Four Seasons” painting hanging and others representing works in progress. For Art, an enclosed space representing an up-scale apartment will be set within the studio format so, as Lamos described it, a “studio will hover around the apartment.”

 Although Lamos hopes that people will see both plays, he doesn’t offer advice about which play to see first – for him, apparently, the synergy works both ways. As for whether the Playhouse will attempt to present other plays in a rep format, that remains to be seen. Lamos did note, however, that everyone, from office staff to marketing to the production staff is “jazzed about” what they are attempting.

 So, if we stand back for a second and considers what we, in May, are about “to see,” we have two Tony-award winning plays with a cast of accomplished actors, directed by a man who has given a lot of thought about the ‘art’ he is creating. The two productions will deal with multiple aspects of art, the creating of art, the viewing of art, and the buying and collecting of art, as well as the emotions generated.

At the close of Red, Rothko puts his hand on Ken’s chest, where his heart is, and says: “Make something new.” That’s what Lamos and all involved at the Westport Country Playhouse are attempting to do.

The run is from May 3 -- 29, "Art" on even-numbered days and "Red" on odd-numbered days.
For more information and to buy tickets, visit or call the box office at (203) 227-4177, toll-free at 1-888-927-7529, or visit Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, off Route 1, Westport.

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