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Mark Rothko's artistic dilemma captured in 'Red,' opening at ACT

After years of struggling financially as an artist, Mark Rothko had achieved a painter's dream — a lucrative commission to create a series of paintings for the prestigious Four Seasons restaurant under construction in Manhattan.

Working in his studio on large-scale canvases, he created paintings that appeared to glow, often combining luminous, floating fields of fiery red set against dark, brooding maroon backgrounds.

"Through his paintings he wanted people to participate in the extraordinary gift of life — the tragedy and ecstasy of it. He wanted to touch people in that way," says Peter Alzado, a veteran actor who portrays the famous abstract expressionist in the Ashland Contemporary Theatre's staging of the Tony Award-winning play "Red." The play is being co-produced by Alzado's Oregon Stage Works.

Rothko wanted people viewing his art to experience a feeling of transcendence. Yet the canvases were destined for an expensive restaurant where — in his view — the richest New Yorkers "will come to feed and show off."

With its production of "Red" by John Logan, ACT delves into the artist's dilemma. Performances are set for 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 11-20, at Grizzly Peak Winery, 1600 E. Nevada St., Ashland; and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 26 through April 3, at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way. Tickets are $15 and are available at Paddington Station, 125 E. Main St., Ashland; Grocery Outlet, 35 E. Stewart Ave., Medford and online at www.ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org. Reservations for at-the-door ticket sales also can be made by calling 541-646-2971.

Recent Southern Oregon University theater graduate Reece Bredl joins Alzado on stage in the two-man play set in 1958. Bredl plays Ken, a fictional composite of Rothko's studio assistants.

Ken represents youth and the new direction the art world is heading. People's enthusiasm for abstract expressionism — with its lack of subject matter and focus on brush work — is waning. Drawing heavily from comic books, celebrity culture and the slick world of advertising, pop art is on the rise. Paintings of Campbell's soup cans and silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley are taking over top galleries.

"Abstract expressionism has become 'establishment,'" says Bredl.

While Ken embraces pop art, he also grows to have a greater appreciation for Rothko's paintings and philosophy. Ken sees early on that the paintings will not fit into the busy, upscale restaurant — even as Rothko continues on with the commission.

"Ken is a very insightful, talented young man who sees right away Rothko's self-delusional thinking," Alzado says.

Born in Russia, Rothko immigrated to America in his youth and lived in Portland. He went to work early after his father's death but managed to be an outstanding student. Rothko was a waiter and delivery boy while attending Yale. His slow rise to fame and success as an artist cost him his first marriage.

While creating his paintings for the Four Seasons, Rothko thought employees would be able to see the art from their work areas, but those areas were later walled off. He was further disillusioned when he visited the restaurant site.

"As long as the restaurant was an abstraction, it was OK. But when he goes himself, he realizes his art is not going to impact people," says Jeannine Grizzard, who is co-directing the play with Alzado.

Grizzard and artist Mabrie Ormes created abstract paintings to be used for "Red," which is set in Rothko's studio. In a further homage to art, Grizzard, Ormes, Isabelle Alzado, Jane Hardgrove and Gene Leyden are displaying more than a dozen abstract paintings in a lobby next to the performance space at Grizzly Peak Winery.

In his life, Rothko was highly selective about how his paintings were displayed — wanting control over the spacing between the canvases, the lighting and even how far away viewing benches should be set from the works. His intent was for people to spend time with the paintings and become enveloped by the feelings they evoked.

"He almost wanted people to fall into them," Bredl says.

With pop art on the rise and televisions proliferating in living rooms, Rothko saw the erosion of people's attention spans and their increasing inability to gaze quietly and deeply at his paintings.

"He feels there aren't any real human beings out there to look at his work. He feels the world is living on a superficial plane. People would rather have a Coke," Alzado says. "We're all alive. It's an extraordinary gift — and what are we doing with it?"

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.