Rothko painted brigtly colored abstracts.
Rothko painted brigtly colored abstracts. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images)

DORSET -- What is art? What is the proper boundary line between art and commercial aspirations? When should the master listen to the apprentice?

Dorset Theatre Festival will explore these questions and others when the 39th season opens Wednesday, June 18, with "Red," a play by John Logan that has earned six Tony Awards, including the 2010 Tony award for Best Play. It deals with the struggles of Mark Rothko, one of the giants of post-World War II American abstract art, to complete a project for the famed Four Seasons Restaurant that would garner him a handsome fee.

But Rothko, prodded by his assistant, comes to question the artistic validity of it, taking the audience along for a 90 minute-long dive into the philosophical nuances of his work and beliefs.

"It's a powerful play about art -- what is art, and who determines what art is," said Dina Janis, the artistic director of the theatre festival. "It looks at an interesting relationship between Rothko and a young apprentice, and it will engage viewers who may not primarily be interested in art."

The cast consists of two actors. Rothko's part will fall to Tim Daly, an actor well known for his work in television and films, who appeared in "The Scene" last year at the theatre festival. Charles Socarides will play the part of his fictional assistant, Ken. Socarides, a stage actor from New York, has parts in three upcoming Indie films.

Rothko was a purist about art and had strong feelings about what art should be, Janis said.


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He was offered what was at the time a huge amount of money for painting the large red murals for the Four Seasons, a top draw restaurant in mid-town Manhattan where elites would meet and gather.

But apparently Rothko eventually came to have conflicted feelings about the project and about creating artwork to enhance the dining pleasures of the rich and famous. He eventually bailed out of the project and returned the cash advance he had received for the murals.

The tension in that decision interested Janis.

"With a play like ‘Red' you want to do justice to Rothko," she said. "He was a bigger-than-life character."

Bringing him to life on stage involves a lot of research into why he was such an important figure in American art, she said.

Adrienne Campbell-Holt, who directed Daly in "The Scene" last year, will direct the play. The pair enjoyed their collaboration on that project and were hoping to repeat it. When Janis suggested "Red" to them, it seemed like a good fit, Campbell-Holt said.

"I read it and loved it," she said. "It can be a dark play but really inspiring too."

Many artists are fascinated by other artist's stories and the artistic process. The play explores the struggle of an artist to create and tap into "sparks of genius," she said.

The other element audiences will find intriguing is the relationship between Rothko, not known as a carefree bohemian sort, and his assistant, she said.

"The tension between the two men and watching the relationship evolve is so rich," she said. The play "is not an impression of a famous artist; it's the story of a man's struggle to create and find his voice and the relationship that evolves with his young assistant."

Daly is well known for his work in the television sitcom "Wings" and also for his role in HBO's award winning show "The Sopranos," which earned him an Emmy. He has also had roles in several well-known big budget movies, including "Diner" and a voiceover role in "Superman: The Animated Series."

He enjoyed performing in "The Scene" last year, as well as live theater in general, and he wanted to reprise that effort, he said. Live theater has proved a good place to challenge himself artistically and to try things he may not find in television or movies.

Daly also has long term Vermont roots, which makes performing at Dorset a homecoming. He attended The Putney School and then graduated from Bennington College before his acting career took off.

Having seen "Red" twice and enjoyed it, he was eager to take on the role of Rothko when the opportunity came, he said.

Acting in a two-person cast is part of the challenge to this play, but part of the fun as well, Daly said. Comedy mixes in with the intellectual, and the show becomes a dialogue throwing about a lot of big ideas.

"The question of what it is to be an artist, especially an artist who has aged, was sort of a profound thing for me, and something that all of us who hang around the planet long enough have to deal with," Daly said. "Rothko was acutely intellectual and on a profound search for meaning and the meaning of art."

If you go ...

What: 'Red' on Mark Rothko

Where: Dorset Theater Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset

When: Wednesday, June 18, through July 6

Information: (802) 867-2223, dorsettheatrefestival.org