John Logan’s 2010 Tony Award® Winner “Red” Chronicles a Creative Crisis of Painter Mark Rothko

The PlayMakers Rep cast for "Red" includes Stephen Caffrey (rear) as Russian-born American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and Matt Garner as Rothko's assistant Ken (photo by Jon Gardiner)
The PlayMakers Rep cast for “Red” includes Stephen Caffrey (rear) as Russian-born American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and Matt Garner as Rothko’s assistant Ken (photo by Jon Gardiner)

PlayMakers Repertory Company will open its 2012-13 main-stage season with Red, 50-year-old American dramatist and screenwriter John Logan’s multiple Tony Award-winning play about Russian-born American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (1903-70), on Sept. 19-23 and 25-30 and Oct. 2-7 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

Red director Vivienne Benesch is the artistic director of the Chautauqua Theater Company and Conservatory of Chautauqua, NY 2012 and a lecturer this year in UNC’s Department of Dramatic Art. She directed the Fall 2011 presentation of In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) for UNC’s professional-theater-in-residence.

Red is set in the studio of the master abstract expressionist Mark Rothko (played by veteran actor Stephen Caffrey) between 1958 and 1959, when he was working on the biggest commission in the history of modern art: a series of murals for New York’s famed Four Seasons Restaurant,” Benesch says. “At the start of the play, a new and nervous young assistant, Ken (UNC Professional Actor Training Program actor Matt Garner), arrives for his first day of work.

“Over the play’s five scenes,” says Benesch, “the master imbues his protégé with insights not only into the making of art, but the very nature of art and its significance. Issues of art and commerce, public and private personas, fathers and sons, and the inevitability of change are all on the table.”

In preshow publicity, PlayMakers Repertory Company writes:

“As PlayMakers‘ hit play Opus (2009) took audiences behind the music of a world famous string quartet, Red goes into the studio of Mark Rothko, pioneer of abstract expressionism, and into the mind of an artist wrestling with the eternal struggle between art and commerce. Seen through the eyes of his young, increasingly challenging assistant [Ken], Rothko agonizes over a lucrative project painting murals for the then-new Four Seasons Restaurant.”

Red premiered on Dec. 8, 2009 at the Donmar Warehouse in the Covent Garden section of London. Donmar Warehouse artistic director Michael Grandage staged the show with Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as Rothko’s fictional assistant Ken. In 2010, that production transferred to the John Golden Theater on Broadway for a limited engagement of 101 performances, which started March 11th and ended June 27th. Red won six 2010 Tony Awards® — including the Tonys for Best Play, Best Direction of a Play (Michael Grandage), and for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play (Eddie Redmayne) — plus the 2010 Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Play and for Outstanding Director of a Play.

Variety raved, “[Playwright John] Logan sends American painter Mark Rothko into battle with his demons in this electrifying play of ideas, and the artist’s howls are pure music.” The Washington Post claimed Red has “spiritual intensity and an almost sexual energy … [showing] the artist consumed by the physical demands of his work.”

PlayMakers Rep guest director Vivienne Benesch recalls, “Somehow, even though Red was all the rage in London [in 2009] and then on Broadway in 2010, I never saw it (one of the mixed blessings of a busy career in the theater — your only day off is Monday and it’s every other theater’s ‘dark’ day too!) But I was certainly aware of Red’s reputation as a spectacular ‘happening’ in the theater; and, of course, it won the Tony Award that year for Best Play and has since become one of the most produced plays in the country.”

She adds, “Audiences who have the chance to encounter this intense, intelligent, funny, and moving play will no doubt see why. I feel so fortunate to have been invited back to PlayMakers to bring Red to life for an amazing community of curious and intelligent theater-goers.

What does Vivienne Benesch like best about Red, and what made her want to direct it?

“What’s not to love?” she quips. “The play world itself is fascinating: New York’s art scene in the 1950s at the height of America’s first truly globally significant artistic movement, Abstract Expressionism. It has incredibly smart and [has] passionate characters talking about what I feel intensely passionate about: the power of art to move and transform people.

“And while the play has a sophisticated palate of language and dialogue, it is also a play of doing,” claims Benesch. “We get to see some of what really happens in an artist’s studio: stretching and priming canvases, mixing paints, building frames, sorting pigment. I find that incredibly exciting. I love plays that take us behind the scenes of worlds to which we aren’t usually privy.

“Also,” Benesch says, “the role of Rothko is a wonderfully drawn character in a major key providing a real tour de force for a brilliant actor (we are thrilled to have veteran Stephen Caffrey making his PlayMakers debut.)”

She adds, “The character of Ken is equally complex, in what might be described as a minor key (and UNC Professional Actor Training Program actor Matt Garner, who I also directed In the Next Room, is perfectly suited to the role of a young artist about to make his own significant mark on the profession!). In other words, there’s lots of great ‘music’ in this play; and everyone involved truly gets to play [it].

“But most of all,” says Benesch, “I think the play, like one of Rothko’s own iconic color form paintings, is profoundly multilayered. The deeper you go into it, the further there is to go.”

The PlayMakers Rep cast for "Red" includes Stephen Caffrey (left) as Russian-born American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and Matt Garner as Rothko's assistant Ken (photo by Jon Gardiner)
The PlayMakers Rep cast for “Red” includes Stephen Caffrey (left) as Russian-born American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and Matt Garner as Rothko’s assistant Ken (photo by Jon Gardiner)

In addition to director Vivienne Benesch, the PlayMakers Repertory Company creative team for Red includes PRC producing artistic director Joseph Haj, assistant director Kelsey Didion, production manager Michael Rolleri, scenic designer Jan Chambers, costume designer McKay Coble, lighting designer Charlie Morrison, sound designer/engineer Robert Dagit, voice coach John Patrick, movement coach Craig Turner, and stage manager Sarah Smiley.

“This play is a fantastic look at an artist at work in his studio,” claimed Joe Haj in preshow publicity, “and a story that explores the teacher/student, mentor/mentee relationship. We’re thrilled to have Vivienne Benesch back with us this year to direct this much-admired play.”

Director Vivienne Benesch raves, “[Scenic designer] Jan Chambers has done a beautiful job of creating a version of the real studio that Rothko inhabited during this period of time. 222 Bowery, in the East Village of New York City, was previously a YMCA; and Rothko rented the large basement that had formerly housed the gymnasium.

“Chambers has designed a wonderful structure of beams, with a staircase headed down into the space that really captures this somewhat institutional setting,” says Benesch. “[Rothko’s studio was] A big open space with very high ceilings[.] Rothko blocked out all the windows in the studio with paint because he famously disliked ‘natural light’. We have done the same (although watch for some surprises…) He also had enough space to hang the Seagram’s murals he was in process with all around the room.”

Benesch notes, “The PlayMakers deep thrust stage gives us the perfect opportunity to suggest those canvases hanging on every wall. The rest of the set is sparse in furniture (Rothko didn’t use his studio as an entertaining venue) but it is filled with all the various tools and products that an artist would have at their disposal: paint racks, paints, canvases, ladders, brushes, drop cloths, buckets … and the paintings.”

She adds, “As I mentioned [previously], Rothko famously hated natural light. He was obsessively controlling about the light with which he painted as well as the light with which people looked at his paintings. [Lighting designer] Charlie Morrison therefore has the challenge of suggesting this dimly lit reality while making sure that the audience can see the actors well enough at all times.

“There are also some wonderful theatrical opportunities for the lighting designer,” says Benesch. “Between each of the five scenes in the play are significant transitions that I hope will feel like we are going deeper into one of Rothko’s own paintings. Here Morrison gets to play with light and color on the set in beautiful and unexpected ways.”

Benesch says, “As costume designer McKay Coble likes to say, ‘This play is not about the clothes’; and [whereas] she’s right, it takes an excellent designer like her to make this the case. We need to believe 100 percent that these characters work and paint in the clothes they have on. I know that the painters in the PlayMakers scene shop were asked to wear many of the actors’ costumes while they worked on the set, so that the garments would look authentically paint splattered.

“In terms of period authenticity,” Benesch says, “there’s a good amount of photographic research as to what Rothko wore — which we’ve used as a base. And, of course, there’s no shortage of research into the styles of the late 1950s.

“In many ways, the character of Ken represents elements of the ‘new pop culture’ that was supplanting the formality of previous generations,” Benesch points out. “The costumes will hopefully reflect this transition.”

Director Vivienne Benesch declares, “The greatest challenges of working on Red are siblings to the very things I love most about the play. I mentioned it being a play of doing…. Well, we have had to spend a lot of time figuring out all that action. While the play is short (90 minutes with no intermission), it is very much a high-octane sporting event.

“As the actors speak in highly intelligent patter about everything from Nietzsche to Andy Warhol,” Benesch says, “they must simultaneously be completely at ease with the work they are doing in the studio. It’s very important that the audience not doubt for a second that these two men work in this environment and are experts with all the tools and procedures.”

“In fact, at one point in the play, we watch Rothko and Ken prime an 8′ by 7′ canvas right in front of us!” says Benesch. “It is a theatrical climax and a challenge for every department involved in the show…. I don’t really want to give away more than that, but it will hopefully be incredibly exciting for our audience as well.

“Finally,” Benesch says, “there’s the ghost of Rothko himself…. Nearly everyone knows what a Rothko painting looks like. For many of us, his paintings are iconic. How then, does one put the artist’s works on the stage if you can’t replicate them exactly? And since that’s not an option (the Rothko estate has very particular licensing criteria for any company producing Red), the scenic charge at PlayMakers has taken on the daunting task of re-creating a few of the Seagram’s set from scratch…. Probably only hints of these will be visible to the audience to suggest the real thing rather than inevitably falling short of the master, but this has been an interesting challenge to explore.”

SECOND OPINION: Sept. 18th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel preview by Anissa Putois:; Sept. 13th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan:’s-intense-art-in-‘Red’-play (Note: You may have to register to read this article); and Sept. 12th Durham, NC Independent Weekly “Indy Pick” by Zack Smith:

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents RED at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19-21 Previews, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22 Opening Night, 2 p.m. Sept. 23, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25-28, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29, 2 p.m. Sept. 30, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 2-6, and 2 p.m. Oct. 7 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. 

TICKETS: $20-$50, except $10 UNC students, $12 all other students, and $15 general admission on Tuesdays (Community Night).

BOX OFFICE: 919/962-PLAY or

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/843-2311,, or






NOTE 1: There will be FREE post-performance discussions with the creative team on Sept. 26th and 30th.

NOTE 2: The 2 p.m. Sept. 29th show will be an Open-Captioned Performance. For details, click

NOTE 3: Arts Access, Inc. ( of Raleigh will audio-describe an All-Access Performance at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 2nd, which will also feature sign-language interpretation and Large-Print and Braille programs and — if requested in advance by e-mail to — a tactile tour of the set.

NOTE 4: At 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 6th and at 2 p.m. on Oct. 7th, there will be FREE post-show “Mindplay” discussions sponsored by the N.C. Psychoanalytic Foundation (, the Lucy Daniels Foundation (, and N.C. Psychoanalytic Society (


The Play: (Wikipedia) and (Internet Broadway Database).

The Playwright: (Wikipedia) and (Internet Broadway Database).

The Director: (PlayMakers Repertory Company), (Chautauqua Theater Company and Conservatory), and (Internet Broadway Database).

Mark Rothko: ( Your Guide to Modern Art) and (Wikipedia).


Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).