The play focuses on Rothko during the height of his career when he painted the Seagram murals.
Never start a conversation about visual arts with veteran theater, film and television actor Bart Guingona, especially if you have an appointment to follow. Better ask him about art when you have the whole afternoon or evening free.
“You see, it’s so easy to like the impressionists. They are so evocative and pretty. Sa isang tingin mo pa lang, alam mo na may dating na sa ‘yo. Abstract expressionism makes logical sense, it’s like, ‘What does this mean?’’ Guingona tells us on a recent balmy evening in a café in Quezon City frequented by theater actors. On the other side of the four-seat table is theater actor-turned film and television heartthrob JC Santos.
Like a professor to eager students, Guingona expounds on the works of his favorite painters, from Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings to Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”—but most especially on American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.
Guingona speaks as if he was reciting lines in a play, as if still in character. He is reprising his role from a decade ago as Rothko in the two-hander Red by American playwright-screenwriter John Logan at the Philippine Educational Theater Association’s PETA-Phinma Theater for a limited 10-day run from June 8 to June 18. “With the possibility of extending it and touring again,” Guingona quips.
Logan is known for writing the screenplays of Skyfall, Spectre, Gladiator, Moulin Rouge the Musical, The Aviator, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, among others. As a playwright, he won the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Drama League awards for Red.
The play is about an episode in Rothko’s life during the height of his career when he was commissioned to do a series of large artworks for the soon to open Four Seasons restaurant in New York; these works would later be known as the Seagram murals.
The play is set in Rothko’s studio in New York where he employs a young assistant named Ken, a fictitious character that Logan created. The encounter revolves around Rothko’s dilemma on whether to go on with the deal or to forgo it and just keep the artworks.
Guingona also produced, directed and acted in Red the first time it was staged by Actor’s Actor, Inc-The Necessary Theatre in 2013 with the now-London based Joaquin Pedro Valdes playing Ken. The first staging was also its Asian premiere, held from February 22 to March 2, 2013 at The School of Design and Art at the De La Salle-College of St. Benilde, Manila.
“Then we toured it until the following year in several venues. We kept on doing and doing it for a year. Next, we staged it in Carlos P. Romulo Theater in RCBC Building in Makati City, then in Cebu followed by Dumaguete and the last was a one-weekend run at Tanghalang Huseng Batute at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in early 2014,” Guingona says.
Ironically, it was Santos who proposed the idea of restaging Red to Guingona. They happened to be co-actors in a television series and, during one of the location tapings, they shared a tent. “He mentioned to me he got an email that the rights to stage Red was about to expire. So I told him, why don’t we do it this year?” Santos says.
‘One of the things I discovered about Rothko is he idolized Mozart. Why is it that a non-narrative piece of music like Mozart’s can make you cry? Color should be able to do that too.’
They were supposed to do an Italian play about the horrors of the Holocaust, Anthony Sher’s Primo, which was based on the memoirs of Italian chemist, writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi.
“But there were copyright problems with the English version. They told me we could do our own adaptation but when they sent me the text, it was in Italian. We had to look for someone who could do the translation for us,” Guingona says, laughing.
Restaging Red was the perfect choice.
“This year, coincidentally, is my 40th year in theater. I’ve been around the block, as you can see,” Guingona giggles. “But why Red, apart from JC giving me the idea? When I look at it again, now that I am more mature, I realize I want to do it because there are so many layers in the play that I missed from 10 years ago, or I took for granted.”
One is Rothko talking about his paintings like they were his children. “I took that with a grain of salt before. For the first time, I am seeing that. Rothko is almost god-like in his approach. Because creating is an act of god. And he becomes a parent with all its attendants and insecurities…and understandable was his defensiveness of his work.”
For Santos, Red is a dream come true. “In 2011, I was working in Disneyland. My friend Faust Peneyra sent me the script and I was hooked at once,” Santos says.
Guingona adds, “In the words of the play, he was ‘a titanic self-absorbed of a man.’” In truth, he was much more than that. [For Rothko], every time you create something, it’s like you are putting yourself out there for the world to see and understand and experience. And you would be this Titanic self-absorbed [father] in the protection of your child.”
For Santos, Red is a dream come true. “In 2011, I was working in Disneyland. My friend Faust Peneyra sent me the script and I was hooked at once so I asked some friends to [stage] read it. Then a couple of years later, I learned that Bart was doing it with Joaqui (Valdes). I told myself, it’s not time for me yet,” Santos says.
After his Disneyland stint, he decided to hone his talent by studying acting at Circle In The Square Theater and School in New York City. Because he was a Rothko fan, he made sure he experienced seeing his artworks in all the museums and galleries he visited, especially at the Museum of Modern Art.
When he returned to Manila to pursue an acting career, it was always at the back of his mind to do Red. “Panata ko na once a year I’d do a play but it stopped during the pandemic,” Santos says. The last stage play he did was in 2019, essaying the titular role in Tanghalang Pilipino’s Lam-Ang.
Red is only the second time Santos will act in a two-hander play, the first time being in 2016 with Cris Villonco in Red Turnip Theater’s local staging of Nick Payne’s Constellations. Described as an unusual love story where science and romance collide, Constellations was a big challenge for him.
“I love doing a two-hander because there are so many things to explore. So, having this opportunity to play Ken is a dream come true. This is also the first time I am going to act and be directed by the great Bart Guingona,” Santos says.
Then again, it’s not going to be a mentor-teacher process. Quoting a line from the play, Guingona says in jest, “Just remember am not your father, am not your teacher, am not your rabbi, am your employer…”
Santos speaks the line simultaneously with Guingona. Turning a bit serious, Guingona says audiences will have a fantastic experience in the theater.
He says, “This play is instructive, how to look at Rothko or any artworks. You have to invest time, concentration. One of the things I discovered about Rothko is he idolized Mozart. Why is it that a non-narrative piece of music like Mozart’s can make you cry? Color should be able to do that too. That’s why Rothko’s color themes are like that. The closest I can imagine is that if you were on the beach and you saw the sun setting and the tears start flowing, and you don’t know why. It doesn’t make sense. Color should be able to do that. You cry because it’s so beautiful.”