You don’t have to be an art critic to appreciate “Red,” John Logan’s play about the artist Mark Rothko. But it probably helps to know a little bit of Nietzsche.

The 2010 Tony Award-winning play, now brought to pulsating life by Ashland Contemporary Theatre, in association with Oregon Stage Works, is an arrow to the heart of the conceptual world of the now-iconic Jewish-American modern artist seen through, among other lenses, the thought of the iconoclastic 19th-century German philosopher.

Did the floating black and red blobs of color on Rothko’s canvases represent the Apollonian and Dionysian modes of being, respectively, as Ken, Rothko’s young assistant speculates? But, then, of course black also represents death, right? Or is that just a romantic cliche?

Of such stuff is “Red” made. It’s a two-person play, a bit longer than 90 minutes, brimming with big ideas and proving once again that having little or no plot or external action can be OK, even thrilling, if the writing is good enough. And in the hands of co-directors ACT Artistic Director Jeannine Grizzard and Oregon Stage Works AD Peter Alzado, the taut little drama throbs with an urgency that may remind you of the supercharged duet of “My Dinner With Andre.”

At the play’s start, Rothko (Alzado), enters, spends a long time silently taking in a painting and eventually says, “What do you see?” You have to stand close to the painting to get it, he explains.

“What does it need?” he asks.

His newly hired young assistant, Ken (Reece Bredl), an aspiring painter, pauses a beat, then answers: “Red.”

This sends Rothko into a tirade, an avalanche of images of redness demanding specificity. A lesser minion might be overwhelmed, but Ken meets him image for image, showing there’s more to the young assistant than meets the eye.

The proximate cause of the play’s Sturm und Drang is the artist’s commission to create a series of large, expensive paintings for the uber-exclusive Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram’s building in New York City after World War II. For Rothko, who believed that art should be an uncompromising, existential, almost religious experience, it meant success in the plastic world of bourgeois commodities, a troubling irony.

Rothko believed that we live on a fulcrum between the passion of the Dionysian and the order of the Apollonian, as set out by Nietzsche in his early book “The Birth of Tragedy,” which speculated that the Greek drama evolved from the spirit of music. In the play, Rothko’s great fear, made specific by Alzado, is that the black — order, and maybe death — will swallow up the red, the passionate life force.

Rothko experimented and ultimately rebelled against both abstract expressionism and surrealism, settling at the time of the play on blocks of color that seemed to vibrate on the canvas and which he hoped would communicate to the viewer intimations of death and sensuality.

Sounds like heavy stuff on the stage, but consummate pro Alzado and young Bredl bring it to surging, compelling life in the new playing space at Grizzly Peak Winery outside of Ashland. Alzado’s Rothko is a towering figure in paint-smeared khakis, cigarette in hand, who can toss off a line like, “There’s tragedy in every brush stroke” and make us believe it.

And Bredl brings Ken’s arc to life, maturing as a young man and probably an artist (though we don’t know this for sure) in the play’s brief time.

Alzado seems to play Zen master to Bredl’s student. Or does he. He says he doesn’t care.

“Red” raises more questions than it answers, and that’s a big part of its punch-you-in-the-guts power. In the hands of this cast and crew, it makes for an unforgettable evening of theater that reminds you why you go to the theater. “Red” repeats March 13 through March 20 at Grizzly Peak Winery and March 26 through April 3 at the Ashland Community Center on Windburn Way.

 

— Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.