By Richard Ades

If you want to get acquainted with artist Mark Rothko before seeing his exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art, one way is to visit the National Gallery of Art’s website (http://www.nga.gov/feature/rothko/). It has a beautifully illustrated biography of the artist’s career.

It will help you to understand where all those nonrepresentational images and subtly modulated colors come from.

If you prefer a more dramatic (if less factual) introduction to the artist, CATCO’s production of Red fills the bill. John Logan’s 2010 Tony winner imagines that Rothko hired an assistant in 1958 and spent roughly two years lecturing him on art, history and philosophy.

Does an artist really need to know Nietzsche to create paintings that basically consist of rectangular blocks of color? Yes, according to Logan’s Rothko, if he wants those blocks to impart profound meaning to those who see it.

But then the question becomes: Will viewers understand all that profundity if they fail to approach it with a similar amount of knowledge and thoughtfulness? Rothko doubts that they will, one of many worries he shares with Ken, his assistant.

From an arts-history standpoint, Logan’s journey inside the head of a successful but self-tortured artist is fascinating. From a dramatic standpoint, it’s somewhat less so, in spite of good efforts from director Jimmy Bohr and his cast of two.

Kevin McClatchy communicates Rothko’s self-impressed and self-absorbed nature without turning him into a hateful caricature. Tim Simeone provides a convincingly evolving portrayal of Ken, whose worshipful timidity eventually gives way to wry comments on his boss’s eccentricities.

Despite Ken’s growth, the two men’s relationship is essentially static because the egotistical Rothko simply doesn’t care about him. “These paintings deserve compassion,” he says as a pre-emptive strike against critics. But he has none for Ken.

The play’s lack of dramatic development leaves it feeling talky at times, but it’s talky in a historically and artistically interesting kind of way.

Michael S. Brewer’s set is a realistic depiction of Rothko’s cavernous studio. Jarod Wilson’s lighting, like the lighting Rothko prefers for his exhibition spaces, is low enough to retain an air of mystery.

You may not come out of the play feeling like you know Rothko, but you’ll at least have an inkling of how much thought—and ego—went into those huge blocks of color.

CATCO will present Red through March 3 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $26-$41, $11.50 for Wednesday matinees. 614-469-0939, catco.org or ticketmaster.com.

“Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950” will be on display through May 26 at the Columbus Museum of Art, 480 E. Broad St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (evening hours extended to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday). Museum admission is $12, $8 students (18-plus) and seniors (60-plus), $5 for ages 6-17, free for children 5 and younger; free for all on Sunday. 614-221-4848 or columbusmuseum.org.

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