BENNINGTON — Oldcastle Theatre Company opens its 48th professional season this Friday with one of the most popular American plays of the past decade, the Tony award-winner "Red" by John Logan and directed by Oldcastle co-founder and producing artistic director Eric Peterson.
Logan's play brought home a Tony for Best Play in 2010. It tells the story of master abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko receiving the biggest commission in the history of modern art: a series of murals for New York's famed Four Seasons restaurant.
It also begs the question that resonates through the entire play: "What do you see?"
In 1950s New York, Rothko, who will be played by longtime Oldcastle favorite Peter Langstaff, works zealously with his recently hired assistant Ken, himself an aspiring artist, in the former's Bowery studio.
But when Ken, played by the up-and-coming Brendan McGrady, gains the self-assurance to confront Rothko with his past values, thus branding him a sellout, the master faces the tormenting reality that his so-called crowning achievement could also be his undoing.
Peterson said the key to opening Oldcastle's season with this play was being able to cast "two perfect actors for the respective roles."
"Almost a decade after its Tony award, `Red' continues to be in high demand at playhouses globally," Peterson said. "We put together a dynamic team on stage with Peter Langstaff and Brendan McGrady. This take on `Red' will be special because of those two actors."
Langstaff said he relished the opportunity to play the complex Rothko, saying that the role is "terrifically demanding and one which requires considerable emotional investment."
"Rothko was an artist with an enormous intellect and a tremendous empathy for his paintings and his pictures for which he craved a special, even sacred space," Langstaff said. "All this was for the viewer to see them in the way they were intended. To help in this endeavor, he hired a young artist as an assistant; who came to be his protege, his foil and ultimately, well, we'll see."
Langstaff added that having McGrady tackle the role of Ken was "brilliant casting from Eric Peterson, as Brendan is a wonderful actor and I'm blessed to have him as a partner in this endeavor."
For his part, McGrady acknowledged that Ken "is a fascinating character to play."
He said that the audience will follow him "from day one on the job with Rothko to two years of working with him, showing the arc of the character through various stages in their working together."
"The play is all about the relationship between teacher and student, father and son, priest and congregant," McGrady said. "Ken is not only there to learn from and work for Rothko, but also to hold him accountable. Rothko needs Ken to grow and learn so that in the end Ken can save Rothko from himself."
McGrady went on to say that the play itself is "like looking at a Rothko painting, with. Rothko and Ken the two different colors on the canvas."
"The more you look at the painting the more the colors start to pulse back and forth as they gain and lose ground," the younger actor said. "Throughout the play both Ken and Rothko are fighting for their space on the canvas. They go back and forth both losing and gaining ground."
Sharing the stage with only one other actor for an entire play is inherently intense, both actors agreed.
"It's like a game of tennis," McGrady said, with a knowing smile. "You can't leave, you need to be listening, and you can't let the ball drop."
Director Peterson, while calling both his charges back to rehearsal, concluded by noting that audiences "were in for an powerful acting experience."
"John Logan tells a remarkable story of the relationship between Rothko and Ken, which is why this play has been so popular to produce," Peterson said. "These two actors will take `Red' to another level, and audiences will love the results on stage."
"Red" will run through June 23 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St., Bennington. Info and tickets: oldcastletheatre.org or 802-447-0564.
Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at email@example.com, or on Twitter: @TellyHalkias