The famous New York School painter Mark Rothko once said, “I am interested in expressing the big emotions. Tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” If this sounds to you like a good basis for a play, Gladiator writer John Logan agrees with you. He wrote a two-man show, Red, about Rothko and his fledgling assistant Ken Rabin. When the pair find themselves at loggerheads, the on-stage sparks glow hot enough to make Red worthy of its 2010 Tony Award for Best Play.

Rothko was a mule of a man who wouldn’t budge from his opinions and principles. If he couldn’t have freedom of expression, he wasn’t a happy camper. If someone like Rabin challenged him, he became an unyielding ogre. But his paintings, though they could hardly be described as gentle, were soaring, inspiring, and beautiful. No wonder Rabin put up with his shit.

Ken lost his parents when he was seven, so “he’s looking for a father figure,” says PURE co-founder Rodney Lee Rogers. At first Rabin “goes along to get along and he has some real discussions with Rothko about the big paintings he makes, Warhol, and those coming along who Rothko rejects.” But since Rothko is no dad of the year, his relationship with Rabin becomes a generational battle between an aging guy and a young buck.

PURE Theatre has been producing compelling plays for nine years now. Co-founders Rogers and Sharon Graci, both exemplary actors, prize richly textured writing and believable performances above the trappings of large-scale theater. However, this time around, Rogers promises an elaborate set. PURE worked with local artist Arthur Newman, who has a collection of paintings from the 1950s. “Rothko painted in an old gymnasium,” Rogers says. “He didn’t like natural light. So we’ve built the set with a skylight over it and there’s a suggestion of blocking out the light. The whole floor is like a gym floor, like you’re in there.” Although a back wall has been constructed so that the actors are closer to the audience, there’s still the sense of being in a big space.

Director Graci was attracted to the play because of its central questions: What is art, and what is its real value? Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow” recently sold at Christie’s for nearly $87 million, but the artist would probably turn his nose up at anyone who could afford that amount. At the start of the play, he lands a huge commission for the Four Seasons Restaurant on Park Avenue. After creating 40 paintings for the snooty space, he decides he can’t put them there, so he takes them away. Rogers says, “He didn’t think they’d be appreciated by people drinking cocktails.”

The opinionated artist is played by PURE veteran and CofC theater professor Mark Landis. “It’s very different from anything he’s done for us,” says Rogers. Tripp Hamilton, Graci’s son, portrays Rabin. One of their most accomplished scenes involves them prepping a vast canvas with red paint. It’s a breathtakingly physical moment in a show full of talk.

The play has received mixed reviews from theatergoers. Some admire its exploration of contemporary art, creativity, and the relationship between a master and his aide. Others are turned off by the characters’ shouting matches. Rogers sees it as “a heavy, intellectual play that strikes a chord.”

Whatever your taste, the colorful characters make up for any art lecturing.

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