John Logan’s play “Red” won six Tony Awards and the adoration of critics around the world two years ago, for its intimate portrait of abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. Despite its widely-acknowledged greatness, the play only lasted six months on Broadway.
So it’s up to the gutsy producers and actors of regional theaters to keep reviving it, says David Ledingham, who is doing just that this weekend at the Aspen Fringe Festival.
“It won six Tonys and yet it couldn’t make it on Broadway,” he says. “They couldn’t sustain it, maybe because it’s too serious.”
“Red” is the centerpiece of this year’s festival, for which Ledingham is co-artistic director with his wife, Adrianna Thompson. The play runs Friday and Saturday at the Aspen District Theater.
The festival kicked off Wednesday with performances by Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, and concludes Monday with a reading of the romantic comedy “Hope and Gravity.”
This year marks the fourth Fringe Festival, which is emerging as a gem of Aspen’s arts-rich summer offerings. Ledingham, a veteran stage actor turned Aspen hotelier, has found a unique niche — and an audience some may have doubted existed here — with challenging, smart, high-quality plays and performing arts.
Fringe’s lineup seeks not only to entertain, but to edify and enrich audiences in the way great art can.
Preston Maybank, who plays Rothko in Fringe’s staging of “Red,” credits regional producers like Ledingham with keeping American theater alive by continuing to stage edgy plays while Broadway plays it safe. Broadway is glutted with revivals and eager-to-please entertainments, he says, while the stages in the hinterlands like Aspen are keeping the art vital.
“I think the best theater is going on in the regional theaters and has been for many years,” Maybank says. “Nobody’s taking risks on Broadway. It’s not audacious the way that theater needs to be — reaching, missing, falling, getting back up — and the regions and small festivals are where people are growing new stuff and making it new.”
In “Red,” Fringe offers a play centered on an aged Rothko and his young assistant, played by Mark Christine, talking and working in their studio. Over the course of the play, audiences see a Rothko canvas created, and hear the artists’ meditations on Rothko’s groundbreaking career, just as his star fades amid the rise of pop art.
Logan, the playwright, who has also penned Hollywood blockbusters like “Gladiator” and “Hugo,” has said he wanted to make “Red” a play about the nature of work, not necessarily a bio-play of Rothko.
“In reality, it’s not about art theory, it’s about their relationship and it’s about creating something,” Ledingham explains. “It could be a play about auto mechanics.”
In Monday’s “Hope and Gravity,” Fringe offers the kind of bold theater one might only think you can find off-off-Broadway, in the East Village or on a college campus. Written by Michael Hollinger — a past winner of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award — it’s a quirky romance set in a stuck elevator on Leap Day.
With plays like “Hope and Gravity,” Ledingham is trying to grow an audience for emerging artists.
“We try to pick interesting playwrights that we think are going to be important playwrights over the next couple decades,” he says.
Monday’s show also includes a post-performance discussion between the audience and Hollinger himself. It’s the kind of demystifying opportunity anybody interested in theater or writing ought to jump at.