‘Red’ director James Bunzli talks about Compass Rose Theater’s new production

James Bunzli, the director of Red, was recently named a Producing Director at Compass Rose Theater. He has been involved in several shows at Compass Rose, from acting and directing to movement and combat choreography. He has also directed for Everyman Theatre in Baltimore, the NYC Fringe, and Loyola University Maryland, where he is Associate Professor of Theatre. He was previously the Resident Director of the Mansfield Playhouse in Ohio and directed for the Huron Playhouse and Central Michigan University. He generously spoke with DC Metro Theater Arts about John Logan’s play Red.

James Bunzli. Photo courtesy of James Bunzli.
James Bunzli. Photo courtesy of James Bunzli.

Charles Green: What made you interested in directing Red?

James Bunzli: One of my favorite things about the play is its relative subtlety. Looked at in one way, it’s just 2 men talking, in an almost off-hand way at times. There are a couple of big moments, of course, but much of the action sneaks up on an audience. And even though it seems like a “small” play – 2 characters, one set, less than 90 minutes – it is packed with humanity, especially as the two characters become such wonderful foils for each other. The play asks for a sensitive and precise staging where small moves can have a big impact, and that’s a way I really like to work.

Especially given the unconventional venue for the show, were there any challenges in staging it?

The play is so much about the work of painting that I wanted to really focus on the activity that forms the context for the deeper action if the play. Yes, there is the painting scene which must be solved, but there is also the ongoing work of preparing to paint. Early in the play, Rothko says: “We work here.” Finding that balance between the seemingly mundane tasks and the volatility of the developing relationship was a primary focus as we staged the piece. Add to that the limits of a relatively abstract set and a space where the splattering of paint can’t really happen, and you have a focus on the physical labor rather than artistic act of painting. Another danger of the play is that it might become “talky,” which is where the physical act of working becomes even more vital.

How did you and the cast prepare?

We had all had the script for about a year by the time we started rehearsing. Each of us studied up on the play, the many references, and the real history behind this fictionalized version of the events in Rothko’s life/work in the late 1950s. While the actors worked from the perspectives of their characters, I was consumed with finding the play’s heart and soul – both from a philosophical/narrative perspective and a more practical/physical one. We all came to the first rehearsal with pretty clear ideas about the story, but bringing this individual research together, we collaborated really well in putting it all together.

Was there anything that surprised you or the cast in preparing, or after the run began?

I can’t speak for the actors, but I was surprised (and delighted) by the humor in the piece. This is something that only really becomes evident when you hear the text aloud. Like with the play’s general subtlety, these comic passages often sneak up on you. As we worked, we leaned into some of these moments and chose a subtler approach at times – largely based on the difference between when characters know they are being funny and when they do (and must) not. I have been pleased to see that, in spite of some of the “heavy” subject matter, audiences have felt free to laugh at these moments in the play.

Omar A. Said and Gary Goodson in 'Red.' Photo by Stan Barouh.
Omar A. Said and Gary Goodson in ‘Red.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

There are many topics discussed in the play, including art and artists, philosophy, and literature. How familiar should audience members be with these subjects, or with Mark Rothko in particular, before seeing the show?

I think the play is written to appeal to a range of audience members. Some of the references might be lost on folks less familiar with all these elements, but there’s enough there to have a clear idea of what’s going on and how the more esoteric elements in the story relate or the more accessible ones. You can follow Ken’s discussion of Nietzsche without ever having read The Birth of Tragedy, but that scene is equally entertaining for those who know it as they watch Ken work through his (at first pretty naive) ideas about Apollo and Dionysus. And if you don’t know Jasper Johns and Frank Stella, the mention of Andy Warhol positions them in at least a general way. But Logan’s research is thorough, and the story is focused on the development of a relationship, so a person very familiar with the art of the period will still have a lot to “learn” from experiencing the play.

How do you view the relationship between Rothko and Ken?

As I said, I see them as foils to each other. The heart of the story is the ways in which they influence each other, and their relationship develops around a symbiosis – even if it is a grudging one at times. Rothko tells Ken, “I am not your teacher,” but can’t keep himself from teaching.

Lucy Fanto’s paintings are extraordinary. How did they come about?

Early in the design process, the idea of three large paintings as the backdrop developed. It was important that these be large, that they be in the style of (or at least inspired by) Rothko’s Seagram murals, and that they be original and not reproductions of Rothko. Lucy is a Studio Art student at Loyola University and had done scenic painting for an on-campus production last year. Her work on that show (Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors) consisted of painting graffiti all over the walls and floor, giving the set a vibrant, urban feel. It was beautiful, original work. When I knew I needed a painter to create the murals for Red, I approached her, and she willingly took on this new challenge. She designed and executed the murals on the set from some sketches she made after spending some time with Rothko’s work and the result was, like with all good collaborations, precisely what I was looking for – but something I could never have myself conceived. I am certain she has a great career ahead of her!

What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing Red?

That depends a lot on the audience member. Our focus has been on the relationship between the two men and how they fuel each other’s self-actualization. But the play can’t not be a meditation on the artistic process, or even vocation. If nothing else, I hope people will see the humanity behind genius and the complications of fame.

Red plays through February 16, 2020, at the Power House Building, Graduate Hotel – 126 West Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-980-6662 or purchase them online.

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