Seeing Red 

Tony Isbell isn't the kind of actor who spends weeks and months researching his characters. "I don't obsess about it," he says, confident that whether he's playing a well-known historical figure or a purely fictional creation, most everything he needs to know is in the script.

"If I need to know something specific for a role, and the script is not making it clear, then of course I'll look things up, do some research, call an expert, whatever it takes," he says.

Preparing to play the celebrated, somewhat monomaniacal painter Mark Rothko in John Logan's play Red presented a unique set of challenges.

"With Rothko, I was unable to find any film, video, or even audio of him. There are lots of still pictures and lots of his own words," says Isbell, who turned to biographies, hoping to pick up some physical cues. "But my Rothko is more a product of my imagination."

It's probably just as well, since Red, a 2010 Tony winner for best play, opens with the artist looking at an abstract canvas and asking, "What do you see?"

What Isbell sees in Logan's Rothko is an intelligent, dramatic, and very serious artist. "But the Rothko of Red isn't just an intellectual spouting dry, abstract ideas," he says. "He's a passionate man, driven to create."

Red, a probing, lyrical work from the author of the screenplays for Gladiator and The Aviator, tracks the relationship between Rothko and Ken, a fictional assistant, as the artist struggles at the edges of art and commerce, creating his famous murals for the Four Seasons restaurant.

"Despite everything I just said, there are also some pretty funny moments in the show," Isbell assures.

"Red" at Circuit Playhouse through September 15th (725-0776). Playhouseonthesquare.org

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