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Gerald Carpenter: Ensemble Theatre Seeing ‘Red’ with New Production

The Ensemble Theatre Company's next production in its 2013-14 season is John Logan's Tony Award-winning play Red, directed by Brian Shnipper and starring Matt Gottlieb and Shaun Anthony.

Mark Rothko
One of painter Mark Rothko's "Seagram Murals" is the subject of the Ensemble Theatre Co.'s production of Red.

The venue will be the New Victoria Street Theater, 33 W. Victoria St. in Santa Barbara.

Those who saw Luchino Visconti's haunting and idiosyncratic film of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice may recall the two or three scenes in which composer Von Aschenbach (based on Gustav Mahler) discusses life, truth and art with his young protégée, "Alfred" (based on Arnold Schoenberg) — a character who does not appear in Mann's novella. (Mann's Von Aschenbach was a novelist, not a composer, though the author later admitted that he had based the character on Mahler. Visconti turned him back into a composer, but made Dirk Bogarde up to look like Mann himself.)

In these scenes, anyway, Alfred is sometimes the supportive admirer of his mentor, sometimes his indignant accuser.

If you extracted the Von Aschenbach-Alfred scenes and used them as the basis for a 90-minute play, you would come up with something bearing a strong family resemblance to Red, which concerns American painter Mark Rothko at a time when he was just starting to be treated, like Von Aschenbach, as a "classic."

In 1958, Joseph Seagram and Sons (whisky millionaires) had hired architects Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson to design their new home office building on Park Avenue in New York, and they commissioned Rothko to provide paintings to hang in the building's luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons. Red takes place during the painting of what came to be known as "The Seagram Murals," and is in the form of conversations between Rothko and his idealistic assistant, Ken.

"The audience experiences the actual making of art," director Shnipper says, "from the mixing of pigments to the building and priming of a canvas. This play is not a lofty, theoretical discussion of what it means to be a painter; it's a complex examination of two very driven, wounded and sensitive men literally getting down and dirty in the making of art."

Some of the complexity of Rothko's emotional state while working on the potentially very lucrative Seagram paintings may be gathered from some remarks made later that year when he found himself bound for Europe aboard the SS Independence and fell into a conversation with a fellow passenger, John Fischer, publisher of Harper's Magazine. His goal in the Seagram paintings, Rothko told Fischer, was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-b**** who ever eats in that room .... [something that would make diners] feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall."

When they returned to New York, Rothko and his wife visited the nearly-completed Four Seasons, and the painter found the rooms pretentious and totally wrong in tone for his painting. He resigned the commission, repaid the cash advance and put the 40 some completed paintings into storage. The Seagrams, who thought they had been honoring Rothko with the commission, were completely baffled.

In I'll Never Forget What's-'Is-Name, publisher Jonathan Lute (Orson Welles) unveils a work of art he has commissioned. We don't see the art, but we see the horrified expressions on the onlookers and hear their gasps. "You see what I mean?" Lute says. "Give artists money, and all they do is spend it."

Red opened officially on Saturday and continues through June 1. Tickets are $40 to $65, with discounts available to seniors, students and groups of 10 or more. Students and young adults (29 and under) are $20. For reservations and information, call the Ensemble box office at 805.965.5400 or click here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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