With originals by the country’s top abstract artist covering its walls, the city’s newest restaurant surely will be the hottest place for fine dining.
This bothers Rothko, because he doesn’t want people to purchase his work because it’s trendy. He wants his paintings to move beyond abstraction, even beyond classical art, each a separate object possessing its own form and potential.
But when diners sit next to his work, they likely will see only the shades of red Rothko painted in his Bowery studio, which the Bridge Nouveau Theatre Company is re-creating in Baton Rouge Gallery’s back gallery.
This is where Greg Leute as the artist will create a Rothko-like mural while sharing his artistic ideology with his young assistant, Ken, played by Brady Lewis. The audience shares in this experience, too, watching the process unfold in John Logan’s Tony Award-winning drama, “RED.”
The show runs for two performances on Thursday and Friday , and seating is limited to about 75.
The gallery is a small performing space for this inaugural production by Baton Rouge’s newest professional theater, but it’s also a part of the company’s mission.
“We want to produce plays that work with specific venues and spaces,” said Alicia Hanley, the company’s producer and director. “There were a group of us — professional artists — in town who talked about the need for a professional theater company like this.”
The company will work with other professional arts groups, not only tailoring its productions for specific venues but putting the spotlight on the work by artists who show or perform in these places.
“We chose Baton Rouge Gallery for our first production, because we’d done a previous project with them,” Hanley said. “We’ve already established a relationship with them, so we approached them with this idea. They were very enthusiastic about it.”
The company conducted auditions and assembled a 12-person crew that includes costumers, set and lighting designers and stage manager Kaci Davis. Though Baton Rouge Gallery will be showing its July gallery artists’ exhibits, Bridge Nouveau will transform the back gallery into Rothko’s Bowery studio, where Leute will paint a 6-by-6-foot mural.
“RED” opened on March 11, 2010, in Broadway’s John Golden Theatre with Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as Ken.
The mural job is big, prompting Rothko to hire an assistant to mix paint and make frames. Rothko barks orders at Ken while sharing his theories of art, theories that Ken questions, especially when the purist artist is working on such a high-profile commercial project.
“There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend,” Rothko says at one point in the story. “One day, the black will swallow the red.”
Is the price of commercial success worth giving up the principles of all that is pure and true? This thought hounds Rothko throughout the story, forcing him to a defining moment in the end.
“This play is so well written,” Leute said. “There’s something about playing Rothko, something about his single-mindedness and assertiveness that appealed to me. A lot of the lines in the play are actual things he said, and a lot of the things he said spoke to me as an artist.”
Leute is an adjunct professor of theater at Baton Rouge Community College, but many Baton Rougeans may know him as a docent for the USS Kidd. His co-star, Lewis, is a student at the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. He was affiliated with the theater department while attending LSU in Baton Rouge.
“I’m still on their Listserv, and I saw this when they were sending out announcements for auditions,” Lewis said. “Ken is not a real person; he’s probably a mixture of people Rothko worked with. And because he’s fictional, that frees me up in how I play him.”
It also gives Lewis a chance to speculate about Ken’s own artistic career.
“Ken has a lot to learn from Rothko, and if there were ever a sequel to ‘RED,’ you’d probably see a lot of Rothko rubbing off on Ken’s work,” Lewis said.
Meanwhile, Leute is working to stay true to Rothko’s character. The artist died in 1970, but his work continues to influence artists worldwide.
“Performing this play in Baton Rouge Gallery, I have an added sense of responsibility not only to Rothko but to the artists who show here,” Leute said. “It’s hard not to feel that in this space.”