And with its soaring height of 29 feet, Rosenthal’s set (which transfers from the Goodman in Chicago to the Arena’s Kreeger Theater starting Friday) manages to convey something of the artist’s vaulting ambition. It creates ample headroom for Rothko’s galactic self-regard, which is increasingly undercut by a creeping sense of irrelevance in the face of the rise of pop art, a genre he held in contempt. By the end of the evening, the set has impressed itself on the audience, if only subliminally, as a projection of Rothko’s mind — towering, tortured and tragic.
“I felt that the space should have an epic size, because ‘Red’ is a play about big ideas, and it needed a big vessel,” says Rosenthal, who won a Tony in 2008 for his set design for Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Broadway transfer of Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County” and is familiar to Washington audiences for his work on the Steppenwolf/Arena production of last season’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “It needed to feel operatic, too, because there are speeches in the play that are like arias.”
Edward Gero, the Washington actor who gives a volcanic, wounded performance as Rothko, intuitively understood Rosenthal’s strategy in giving the set such extreme verticality. “It heightens the sense of what Rothko was after,” Gero says, “the ambition of what he wanted to create in those large canvases.”
It was also that kind of thinking that made the production’s director, Robert Falls — the Goodman’s artistic director and a multiple Tony winner himself — bring Rosenthal onto the creative team. “One thing I feel about Todd is that he’s really become a master of proportion. Todd and I are also tall men” — Falls is 6-foot-5, Rosenthal an inch shorter — “so we have a strong response to space because of our heights. When I enter a room, it often feels too small to me, particularly above. In the case of ‘Red,’ Todd made strong design choices. He knows how to manipulate stage space in a way that creates an emotional response to the work.”
The set and its decoration subtly reinforce the implications of Logan’s probing script, in which Rothko and his fictional studio helper, Ken (Chicago actor Patrick Andrews), reveal the methods of the artist’s work and debate its meanings, including a multitude of associations with the color red. In one particularly striking scene, the two men apply a russet ground color to a blank canvas, the paint splashing everywhere and leaving both of them stained and dripping as if from a bloody knife fight, underscoring the tensions rising between them.