Once upon a painting

My favorite scene from “Red” — which runs through May 20 at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix (Photo by Chris Bennion)

Now that our three college-age kids are home for the summer, we’ve got a bit more help around the house. Not with the heavy lifting, but more modest tasks like snatching papers off the printer and delivering them to me at my laptop. When they come with a smile, I feel doubly blessed.

Recently Jennifer was the bearer of a bio I’d printed about artist Mark Rothko, whose work is at the heart of a play called “Red” that’s being performed by Arizona Theatre Company through May 20 at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix. I find his work perplexing, despite reading myself silly on the subject.

“I like this guy,” Jennifer told me in delivery mode. Understandable when you consider that a rather Rothko-esque painting hangs in her room — a work she created many years ago during summer camp at the Oxbow School in Napa, California. That was the summer of welding and such.

I spent some time with one of Rothko’s works during a Saturday outing to the Phoenix Art Museum, where his “Untitled (Blue and Green)” created in 1968 hangs in a gallery of one of museum’s four floors. Rothko was an American painter who lived from 1903 to 1970, quite the remarkable span of U.S. history.

Near the painting there’s a brief explanation of its origin and significance, which notes that “Untitled (Blue and Green)” was “created in the final years of Rothko’s life.” Seems the work “marks a temporary reprieve in his long struggles with depression.” Two years after painting it, Rothko took his own life. Many believe he lived with bipolar disorder.

The play guide created by Arizona Theatre Company for its production of “Red” explores Rothko’s personal and professional struggles, sets his role as a founder of Abstract Expressionism in the larger context of art history and shares themes you might miss without some understanding of playwright John Logan’s approach. Think daddy issues.

I saw the play Sunday evening with youngest daughter Lizabeth, a proud survivor of freshman theater studies in NYC who was sorry she’d missed seeing “Red” during the Broadway run that earned it a 2010 Tony Award for best play. She’s making up for lost time this season, having seen eight of the 2012 Tony Award nominees.

This “Red” is a co-production of ATC with Seattle Repertory Theatre. It’s directed by Richard E.T. White, and stars Denis Arndt as artist Mark Rothko and Connor Toms as his assistant Ken. Both has significant Shakespeare experience — something I learned from reading their bios, but Lizabeth surmised from watching their movement and listening to their way with words.

Scenic design by Kent Dorsey, which demonstrates a layering that mirrors Rothko’s construction of his own work, is quite lovely. Costume design by Rose Pederson and lighting design by Robert Peterson are beautiful as well. Original music and sound design are by Brendan Patrick Hogan, who effectively uses music to convey each character’s vibe and the differences between them.

Both Lizabeth and I enjoyed Logan’s writing, and I’m eager to get my hand on a copy of the play so I can enjoy it free of others’ artistic impulses. It’s at once a treatise on the nature of art and artist, and a reflection on what makes us human — wrapped up with humor and a good dose of art history. Its themes resonate with creators and consumers of both visual and performing arts.

Folks steeped in philosophy, theology and literature will recognize something of themselves, and their craft, in Logan’s work. Those who’ve seen the films “Hugo,” “Coriolanus,” “Rango,” “Sweeney Todd,” “The Aviator” and “Gladiator” have already experienced Logan in screenwriting mode.

Seeing “Red” didn’t change my tepid response to Rothko’s paintings, but it did give me a greater appreciation for his journey — and plenty of food for thought while continuing my own.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to explore Rothko works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Please note that “Red” contains mature language. Still, its themes can be appreciated by students of art in middle and high school.

Coming up: Playwright profiles

Great news! Raising Arizona Kids has a spiffy new website! Once a “subscribe” feature is added for blogs on the new website, I’ll be posting “Stage Mom” blogs there. Thanks for taking time to resubscribe once all things “Stage Mom” move to the new website. I so appreciate you reading the work.

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