Playing ‘Red’: ‘If we get it right, it will be an unforgettable night of communion in the theater’–Bart Guingona

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MARK Rothko, 1959 photo by James Scott

In his early years, before he became one of the leading figures of abstract expressionism in the last century, Mark Rothko had a short-lived career in theater.

James E. B. Breslin’s “Mark Rothko: A Biography” reports that, during his high school years, Rothko painted stage sets for the acting company ran by Josephine Dillon, the first wife of Clark Gable. While there is no mention of an attempt to act or direct on his part, Rothko loved theater so much that he applied for a scholarship at the American Laboratory Theater in New York, which didn’t go anywhere.

Though his career in theater stopped, his love for the stage was said to have manifested itself in his works as a painter. At one point, he described his works as “drama” and his forms and figures as “performers.”

Little did he know that his life, or a highlight of it, would be re-imagined on stage in a two-character bio-drama called “Red,” which has been staged in London and New York and has won major awards. When it had its world premiere in London on Dec. 9, 2009, Rothko was played by the veteran actor Alfred Molina.

Now, “Red” will have its Asian premiere in Manila on Feb. 22, and will run until March 2 at The School of Design and Art at the College of St. Benilde, Manila.

Rothko will be played by Bart Guingona, with Joaquin Valdes as his fictitious apprentice Ken.

‘Brooding, forbidding’

“Red” re-imagines Rothko’s life in 1958 when he first accepted a commissioned work. Already an established artist, he was invited by Philip Johnson, an architect-art collector and leading figure in the New Yok art scene to do four murals for the then newly-opened Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in New York.

He came up with three sets of murals that will never be installed in the restaurant. As reported, he felt his works had become “brooding, forbidding, tragic” and he felt they didn’t belong in a commercial setting.

Rothko returned the money to Johnson. The panels for the first set were sold individually, the second were abandoned and the third were donated to the Tate Gallery in London in 1969, or almost a decade after they were finished.

In the late 1960s, Rothko felt his career was coming to a dead end, though he continued to produce some of his greatest masterpieces. He became a heavy drinker before he committed suicide on Feb. 25, 1970, in New York.

The artworks that are now called the Seagram murals bear the trademark Rothko Color Fields, though this time, as the title of the play suggests, they are in dominant shades of red.

“Red” is written by John Logan, the same mind who penned the screenplays of some of the finest contemporary movies such as Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” Tim Burton’s musical film “Sweeney Todd: The Demon of Barber Street,” the Russel Crowe starrer “The Gladiator” and, most recently, Sam Mendes’s Bond film “Skyfall.”

No surprise

It is no surprise that the person who’s bringing the play to Manila is Guingona, who, if not directing, is known for playing intense, intellectually charged roles in two- to three-character plays like “Art,” “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “Oleanna.”

“I had known the story of the Seagram murals for sometime. When I read the New Yorker review of the play, I immediately ordered a copy of it from Dramatists Play Service, who also grants the rights, by the way. I read it and it blew me away,” he said.

Coincidentally, middle of last year, he was asked to mount a play with the DLSU-College of Saint Benilde (CSB)’s The Vito Cruz Project.

“I originally planned to do ‘Uncle Vanya’ with TVCP, but ‘Red’ came along. We originally planned it for November last year, so as early as July I was already in talks with CSB’s Gabby Fernandez,” he said.

Reminded of “Art,” “Oleanna” and “Tuesdays With Morrie,” we asked him if it’s a conscious effort to play like-minded characters.

“I guess it’s a sort of stereotyping that I’d rather wiggle out of. I’d love for my comic work to be recognized, too. I guess over the years I’ve turned into the go-to guy for those raging, obsessive, domineering characters,” he said.

He described Rothko as “pedantic, derisive, obsessive, and pissed off pretty much of the time. I love the guy. He’s a genius a-hole.”

Bohemian fixture

Guingona seems to have been unconsciously preparing for the role long before the play was written by Logan.

A long-time fixture of the bohemian Malate art scene (and nightlife), Guingona is friends with many local artists whose works he admires. Besides Lao Lian Ben and Phyllis Zaballero, he’s been seen in the company of the likes of Kiko Escora, Jojo Legaspi and Dante Perez, and other habitués of Oarhouse and Penguin Bar.

Before he discovered Rothko, Guingona said he was an ardent admirer of the works of Italian painter-sculptor Amedeo Modigliani and French post-impressionist painter Henri Rossueau in his younger years. But now he’s “hands-down Rothko.”

“I’m practically obsessed with his works now. But for those unfamiliar with them, the script goes a long way into explaining his work so that’s a great starting point.”

From a theater artist’s point of view, playing the role of another artist is something Guingona loves. “I can easily relate to the obsessions, the frustrations, the anguish and anger.”

He even went to the extent of gaining weight for the role.

“I’ve so far gained about 7 pounds. Rothko was an overweight slob, to put it nicely, whose vanity was for his art, not his appearance. I only worry about the hassle of having to get lean again. My vanity obviously lies elsewhere.”

Intelligence, hunger

As for Ken, the fictitious apprentice, Guingona saw Joaquin Valdes as the perfect guy for the role.

“His intelligence and his hunger makes him fit for the role. These are qualities that make Ken a good foil for Rothko. His only drawback? His confidence. He’s now working on being more unsure of himself,” said Guingona.

He sees Valdes as someone with a head full of visions. “I look at him and see myself at that age, full of bravery… He’s intelligent, pliable, quick and very smart. One theme in the play has to do with new generations supplanting the old. I told Joaquin that if I weren’t more secure than I am, I would be envious of his success.”

“But I’d like to think I’m wiser than that and I am thrilled that he’s carving out a glowing name for himself,” added Guingona. “See, that’s the thing. The larger your heart, the more of the world you let in. I think that’s the best way to live.”

After the two-weekend CSB run, The Vito Cruz Project has plans of staging “Red” in Cebu this May, though Guingona said he’d be glad if interested parties like other schools in Manila and the provinces would invite them for special shows.

“If we get it right, it will be an unforgettable night of communion in the theater,” he promised.

The Asian premiere of “Red” is presented by Actor’s Actors Inc. and The School of Design and Art of the College of St. Benilde, Feb. 22-23 and March 1-2, 7:30 p.m. Tickets available at Ticketworld, tel. 8919999, or 0915-9108098. Like on www.facebook.com/TheNecessaryTheatre.

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