Mark Rothko’s studio, at 222 Bowery in New York, was a former gymnasium with a hardwood floor spattered with paint. Todd Rosenthal’s set design for “Red,” the Goodman Theatre/Arena Stage co-production of John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play about the vaguely Oedipal clash of the great American painter and his young assistant, is painstakingly realistic: a controlled chaos of buckets of paint, containers of powdered pigment, coffee cans full of brushes, bottles of Scotch, a phonograph with piles of records and a central easel with pulleys for the hoisting and display of Rothko’s vast canvases. But the set is also variously metaphorical.

At junctures, the set suggests a lecture hall, a mad scientist’s lab, a boxing ring and, at key moments, something disturbingly akin to a slaughterhouse.

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.

And it chillingly echoes Ken’s story — which he tells while still wiping the bloodlike paint off the floor — of his parents’ brutal murder during a nightmarishly bloody home invasion when he was a child. The anecdote also has the effect of reinforcing the father-son dynamics between Rothko and Ken, which climax in a psychic bloodletting akin to patricide.

The trick, for Rosenthal, was not to overplay the blood bath symbolism with a too liberal use of paint spatters, which could have made the set resemble the scene of a crime in a serial-killer movie or a community-theater production of “Titus Andronicus.” “In distressing a space like this, there’s a danger of it looking cartoony,” he says. “I said to the crew, ‘Let’s do a little bit, then watch the actors work in the space. If we need to, we’ll come back and do more.’ But we didn’t need to.” Falls approved of this less-is-more approach. “Those images are in the play because John has written them, and it was just up to us not to mess them up.”

The set will undergo minor adjustments at the Kreeger, a modified thrust stage which is significantly shallower and wider than the Goodman’s Albert Theatre. “The Kreeger is kind of a strange beast, mainly because of the thrust stage and the very wide sightlines,” says Ian Pool, production manager at Arena Stage. “That’s the beauty of working with a pro like Todd, because he does his homework. He did Version 1 for Chicago, and Version 1A for the Kreeger, which is different from Version 1 primarily in its compression of depth, to the tune of four or five feet. But it’s basically the same set.”

Fade to black

Perhaps the most important scenic element in “Red” is the series of paintings representing parts of a large and lucrative commission that Rothko received from the architect Philip Johnson to create a mural for the elite Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. (The National Gallery of Art is exhibiting three paintings from the Seagram commission to coincide with the run of “Red” at Arena Stage.) “Imagine a frieze all around the room, a continuous narrative filling the walls, one to another, each a new chapter, the story unfolding, look and there they are, inescapable and inexorable, like doom,” Rothko tells Ken, predicting that the mural will transform the fancy New York eatery into “a chapel . . . a place of communion.”

“But it’s a restaurant,” Ken points out.

“No,” Rothko shoots back. “I will make it a temple.”

That seemingly innocuous exchange turns out to be the kernel of a conflict between the two men that simmers throughout the play and reaches a boiling point near the end. It also establishes the dramatic importance of the paintings themselves, which literally take center stage. The paintings are not direct copies of Rothko’s famous color-field images but, rather, loose evocations of his style, in which masses of color — especially various shades of red, brown, orange and black — seem to hover and pulsate.

Falls chose the sequence of the paintings’ appearances onstage in a manner intended to correspond to the emotional tenor of successive scenes. “I sort of agonized over it, because each of the scenes was set against a particular painting,” he says. “I had to sort of emotionally find my way through, trying to decide which paintings I thought would be the most appropriate backdrops. For the first two weeks of rehearsal, I was constantly changing the ones we were going to use. During the tech period, we reassembled them several times. One of the paintings is actually based on a piece Rothko did that was not intended for the Seagram Building commission, and I was afraid someone would notice. But it felt right to me.”

And one key painting, seen while Ken and Rothko are discussing the significance of the colors red (life force) and black (death) in his work — “One day the black will swallow the red,” predicts the painter, whose real-life counterpart committed suicide in 1970 — is not based on an actual Rothko painting but, rather, on the cover of the program from the play’s original production at London’s Donmar Warehouse. “Rothko did nothing like that, the black devouring the red,” Falls says. “But when I saw that cover, I said, let’s go with that.”

Glow in the dark

Another key visual element of the production determined by the script is the lighting in the studio, which Rothko deliberately kept low to enhance the paintings’ luminescent, seemingly three-dimensional qualities. In the play, Ken figures out Rothko’s strategy, which is “to help the illusion. Like a magician. Like a play. To keep it mysterious, to let the pictures pulsate.” (The effect is reproduced in the Goodman/Arena Stage production by lighting designer Keith Parham.)

Gero, a four-time Helen Hayes Award winner best known locally for more than 70 roles at Shakespeare Theatre Company, had a rare opportunity to experience that effect on some of Rothko’s actual paintings during a private visit to Washington’s Phillips Collection on a day when the museum was closed.

About halfway through the visit, as Gero later described it in his blog, someone entered and said, “Excuse me, I am sorry to interrupt, but we are doing a photo shoot in an adjacent room, and we have to turn all the lights out in the building for about 10 minutes. Would you mind?” Gero immediately grasped the serendipity. “It was as if the spirit of Rothko himself has entered and was present in the room, giving this gift of experience to me before leaving for Chicago to begin rehearsals at the end of the week! I was stunned and moved by the remarkable opportunity to view the paintings in light that I knew Rothko would have preferred, or at least, approved. Like he did himself.”

As audiences will see for themselves at the Kreeger, “Red” concludes with a unique stage tableau that depends on lighting and its effect on the paintings’ famous luminosity. You experience the painting in something like the way Gero experienced it at the Phillips Collection — which is to say, as Rothko would have preferred. Your eyes will adjust.

Nance is a freelance writer.


at Arena Stage. Friday to March 11. Starring Edward Gero and Patrick Andrews. Directed by Robert Falls. Tickets are $40-$85, in the Kreeger Theater. 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300.