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Seeing Red: The Players go arty in new drama

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With only two actors in the play, Paul de Havilland (right), as Mark Rothko, and Tom Pearson, as his assistant Ken, have tough jobs in Red. Kimberley McCosker

Seeing Red: The Players go arty in new drama

Two-man, Tony Award-winning play focusing on a tumultuous period in the career of iconic 20th-century painter Mark Rothko pushes local theatre company in contemporary direction

Following the success of their staging of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in April, the Phnom Penh Players are shifting to the 20th century with their upcoming production to tell a postmodern tale of artistic anguish.

Winner of the 2010 Tony Award for best play, Red is a semi-fictional account of American painter Mark Rothko’s conflict between staying true to his art and selling out.

Opening night is on Thursday at Le Grand Palais, which will be followed by three other performances. Set largely in his New York studio in the 1950s, the play is comprised of dialogue between Rothko and his fictional assistant Ken at around the time Rothko was commissioned to paint interiors for the ultra-posh Four Seasons restaurant.

Although he has the most lucrative contract ever signed by an artist to date, Rothko feels pressure to live up to his fame while struggling with the artistic compromises that come with commissioned work.

“He doesn’t make art in order to sell it, he makes art to tell a story,” said Paul de Havilland, who plays Rothko and previously directed Romeo and Juliet.

“So he has a problem with the kind of place these murals are going to hang.”

In real life, the abstract expressionist painter reportedly said he intended to make “something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room”.

De Havilland said he identified with Rothko’s intense emotions as he watched his cherished genre diminishing in popularity as the pop art that would define the 1960s began to take hold.

“I connect a little bit with his rage, his frustration, his losing faith with humanity … his fears for his own future,” he said.

Director Gordon Barnes, who played Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, said he had wanted to put Red on stage since first reading the script earlier this year.

“I have a huge affinity with Rothko, who believes that art can change the world but is jaded maybe because of his experience with fame and the happy-clappy times of the ’50s while he wants seriousness,” said Barnes.

Only having two characters in the play has its benefits and difficulties, said Barnes.

“It’s easier in that you get to really concentrate on two characters the whole time, and you get to perfect the nuances and get deep into the script,” he said.

“But you have to make sure the two men can sustain people’s attention for 90 minutes,” he added, pointing out that the audience’s constant attention on two actors means they have “nowhere to hide” onstage.

Much of the set work has been outsourced to the public. The paintings, which adorn Rothko’s studio, were created at bar and art space Show Box during “paint parties”.

“So you have 30 different canvases that have been painted in Rothko’s style,” Barnes said.

The resulting artwork will be auctioned off at each performance’s after-party, he added.

While Red may lack the name recognition of other Phnom Penh Player productions, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, Barnes said he thinks Phnom Penh is ready for a contemporary hit onstage.

Red is on at Le Grand Palais, #16 Street 130, on September 4, 5, 11, and 12 at 7pm.

Tickets, which are for sale from yourphnompenh.com and The Willow, cost $10. All proceeds go to Cambodia Living Arts.

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