In 1998 theater director Anders Cato was living in New York when he got some terrible news from his family back home in Sweden. His sister, who was nine months pregnant, went to the hospital, and the baby she was carrying died.
“I didn’t have any children, my brother didn’t have any children, it was the first child for the family,” Cato says. “There were all these hopes attached, there was a life already to this unborn child. It came as a bit of a shock for the whole family.”
He had plans to see a retrospective of Mark Rothko’s art at the Whitney Museum that day and wasn’t sure what to do after receiving the news. But unable to return to Sweden, he decided to go to the exhibit.
“It was an extraordinary experience because I think that’s the way Rothko’s paintings work, in a way,” Cato says. “They are so rich and so personal to him, and yet they are, in a way, neutral, and they open to let us into them. They have this magic effect of bringing your own emotional life and opening yourself up. And so when you’re looking at them, they have a very strong emotional effect, and they reflect something of what’s going on in your own life.”
Seeing those paintings on that day was an emotional experience for Cato, yet also soothing and comforting. “I think there is real tragedy, as Rothko would say, in his paintings, there’s a lot of darkness,” he says. “But there’s also the opposite: there’s also life, there’s also warmth and something ecstatic and something being born. They’re filled with a rich combination of emotions.”
Cato’s experience with those paintings on that day (and, incidentally, he notes that his sister eventually gave birth to two healthy sons) reflects a scene in “Red,” John Logan’s play about Rothko, which Cato is directing at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick — it goes into previews on Tuesday, January 31; opening night is Friday, February 3; and it runs through Sunday, February 26. In the scene Ken, Rothko’s (fictional) assistant, comes to the realization that Rothko’s paintings need to interact with a viewer.
“Because they change, they move, they pulse,” Ken says in the play. “Representational pictures are unchanging; they don’t require the active participation of the viewer. Go to the Louvre in the middle of the night and the ‘Mona Lisa’ will still be smiling. But do these paintings still pulse when they’re alone?”
The relationship between viewer and painting is similar to the one between a play and an audience, Cato says. The writer, director, actors, and other members of the crew open up their emotions and put them on stage, but it is up the audience to see and be affected by the drama through their own life experiences.
“That’s a component of theater without which you cannot function,” Cato says. “It’s the text, the actors, and the audience, and without those three being there, it doesn’t happen, the art doesn’t come alive. And I think, that’s what (Rothko’s) talking about. When Ken discovers that in Scene 2 — how these paintings need the participation of the viewer — it is a big revelation to him.”
“Red” premiered in London in 2009 and opened on Broadway in March, 2010. Both of those productions starred Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as Ken. “Red” won the Tony Award for Best Play of 2010.
The George Street staging will star Bob Ari as Rothko and Randy Harrison as Ken. Ari’s Broadway credits include “Frost/Nixon,” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” He has also worked off-Broadway in regional theater and has made many film and television appearances. Harrison appeared on Broadway in “Wicked” and was a cast member of the TV show “Queer as Folk.”
Logan’s other plays include “Never the Sinner” and “Speaking in Tongues.” He has also written or co-written screenplays for such movies as “Gladiator,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Hugo.”
“Red” takes place in Rothko’s New York studio in 1958 and 1959 as the artist works on his “Seagram’s” murals, which have been commissioned by the Four Seasons restaurants. Rothko is being paid $35,000 for these works, an incredible sum at the time.
In addition to art, the play also explores the mentor-student relationship, which is another element that Cato can relate to. He was born in Sweden in 1967. His father, Lars, was a physician, and his mother, Lisbeth, was a biology teacher. While his parents were science-minded, his uncle, Ake Cato, is a playwright who also wrote a popular Swedish television show in the 1980s and ’90s.
Cato studied theater at NYU, graduating in 1990. He eventually worked as an assistant to Joseph Chaikin, the writer and director. Chaikin had had a stroke and had aphasia when Cato worked for him.
Cato says Chaikin was “instrumental” to his learning how to become a director. And in reading “Red,” Cato thought about his relationship with his mentor, though it is quite different from the one between Rothko and Ken in the play.
“Rothko is a bit of a monster,” Cato says. “Joe was much sweeter than that. And I think, also, because of his stroke and having aphasia, our collaboration was very different than this. But it is impossible not to watch this play without thinking about those relationships with people who taught you to do what you do and who are those people in our own lives. I think the audience will be thinking about those things too.”
“Red” also holds special meaning for David Saint, George Street’s artistic director, because of his relationship with his mentor, Arthur Laurents, who died last May at the age of 93. Laurents wrote the books for shows including “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” and screenplays for films including “The Way We Were.” Saint had a long working relationship with Laurents. He was the associate director of the acclaimed 2009 Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” directed by Laurents. George Street also became a theatrical home to Laurents, producing many of his plays under Saint’s stewardship.
“One of the reasons I was very excited about doing ‘Red’ this year was that we’ve dedicated this season to Arthur, and it’s very few people who are lucky enough to be mentored by a genius in the arts,” Saint says. “Certainly the character of Ken is one (of those people) who is mentored ultimately by this great artist, this genius, Mark Rothko, and I had the same experience with Arthur.”
Saint considered directing “Red” himself but thought that the timing wasn’t right. “It’s only been seven or eight months since Arthur died, and I thought the connection is so strong for me that at this point it’s probably better that someone else directs it, because I think I would be a little too personally involved to be objective,” he says. “So I thought, if I’m not going to do it, I want someone who is intelligent, and I trust with this kind of material, and that was Anders.”
Cato’s previous directing gigs at George Street include “Doubt,” “The Seafarer,” and “Circle Mirror Transformation.” Saint says Cato’s ability to find the subtext within a play, along with the way he collaborates with actors, designers, and other crew members, is why he keeps bringing him back to New Brunswick.
“I find his taste level extremely high, and he is very good at mining the depths of any play while always serving the text,” Saint says. “What I love about him is what I love about most really good directors — he doesn’t call attention to himself, he calls attention to the play. And that is a very important thing for me. So many young directors, and even older directors, I find are so determined on making a mark for themselves that they want to do whatever they can to call attention to their skills, sometimes at the cost of the play. I find that is never the case with Anders; he is always making choices that serve the play the best.”
In addition to its serious themes, “Red” offers a good dose of entertainment. It is very funny right from the beginning when Rothko asks Ken what he sees in his new painting, and Ken replies, “Red.” And when Rothko asks Ken to name his favorite artist, the interviewee makes the mistake of saying Jackson Pollack. It also tells an engrossing story of a great artist teaching a young artist how to become great.
Cato adds: “It’s also about a fantastic period in American art. It’s the first time that America, New York, becomes the center of the whole art world. It had always been in Europe and other places, then these guys who have struggled for so long, Rothko and his contemporaries, were working so hard and living through the Depression, and then the war, and then finally breaking through in the ’50s and becoming the focus of this movement.”
And they barely got there, he says, when pop artists came along and started a new movement. Just as Rothko talks about his generation destroying Cubism — “the child must banish the father,” the artist says in the play. “Respect him, but kill him” — a new group of artists is ready to take over from him.
Cato directed “Red” at Philadelphia Theater Company this past fall. That staging starred Stephen Rowe as Rothko and Haley Joel Osment (“The Sixth Sense”) as Ken. Following its George Street run, the play will move on to the Cleveland Playhouse in March. That makes for two productions of the play in three different venues in a span of a few months. And while he has directed multiple productions of plays before, there’s usually been a gap of a year or two.
“It’s nice to be able to have a second chance at something,” Cato says. “You come into the material with a whole different kind of ease, and you have to be really careful that you don’t go to solutions that you already found. If you can remain open to the work that is in front of you, there is a creative process, a kind of calm, because you know something about how the play moves.”
He says Saint has trusted him with some of the great recent plays, and that relationships like what he has with George Street are important to directors. “They’re a little different than mentor relationships,” he says, “but to have artistic directors who trust you and bring you back, when you’re a freelance director, that is so important, to have a feeling of a sort of home. When I come in here now and start working on a new piece, it feels like coming home in a way.”
“Red,” George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Previews Tuesday through Thursday, January 31 to February 2; opening, Friday, February 3; through Sunday, February 26. Drama by Josh Logan about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and his young assistant, which received six Tony awards, including Best Play of 2010. Directed by Anders Cato, featuring Bob Ari and Randy Harrison. $25 to $62. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.