Nearly nine years after he first played 20th-century artist Mark Rothko, to launch the QC Theatre Workshop, Mike Schulz returns this week to launch the new season of Mississippi Bend Players, acting opposite a fellow MBP veteran in the one-act “Red” by John Logan.

Close Quad-Cities Acting Pair Recreate Colorful Work of Theatrical Art

Mike Schulz, left, and Tom Taylor in the 2012 QC Theatre Workshop production of “Red.”

In the 2010 Tony winner for Best Play, master abstract expressionist Rothko (1903-1970) has just landed the biggest commission in the history of modern art, a series of murals for New York’s famed Four Seasons restaurant in the late ‘50s. In the two fascinating years that follow, Rothko works feverishly with his young assistant, Ken, in his studio on the Bowery.

But when Ken (here played by 2020 Augustana grad Tristan Odenkirk) gains the confidence to challenge him, Rothko faces the agonizing possibility that his crowning achievement could also become his undoing, according to an MBP synopsis. “Raw and provocative, ‘Red’ is a searing portrait of an artist’s ambition and vulnerability as he tries to create a definitive work,” it says.

Close Quad-Cities Acting Pair Recreate Colorful Work of Theatrical Art

Mike Schultz stars as artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) in “Red.”

“Yes, I did this show nine years ago, too. But now I’m the right age and weight for it!” Schulz, who just turned 53, said of embodying the tortured artist (who was 55 when he worked on the murals). “Sincerely, I couldn’t be more excited to be working with the Mississippi Bend Players again, and on such an incredible theatre piece…”

“It is so much fun,” he said of “Red” in an MBP promo video. “It’s funny; I would argue it’s funny in the first 30 seconds. It’s about two people who should not be ever put in the same room together for 90 minutes, and they are, and you could not be happier.”

Close Quad-Cities Acting Pair Recreate Colorful Work of Theatrical Art

The poster for Mississippi Bend Players’ “Red,” opening Thursday.

Odenkirk, who majored in theater at Augie, has worked alongside Schulz on multiple shows including “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and the QC Theatre Workshop’s 2019 rendition of Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?,” directed by Cait Bodenbender.

Schulz also directed Odenkirk in last October’s “Waiting for Godot” at Moline’s Black Box Theatre.

The artistic director of Prenzie Players, Bodenbender is leading her first Mississippi Bend Players production, after previously directing at Prenzie Players and the QC Theatre Workshop.

She’s a Q-C local who has worked with both Schulz and Odenkirk in the past, and the actors approached her to direct “Red” several months ago.

A favorite modern drama

“ ‘Red’ is arguably my favorite modern drama,” Odenkirk said recently by e-mail. “I first read it back in high school, when I was tottering on

Close Quad-Cities Acting Pair Recreate Colorful Work of Theatrical Art

Tristan Odenkirk, left, and Mike Schultz on the Brunner Theatre stage.

the idea of pursuing performance or even theatre in general, and from the first page I was utterly entranced.

“The discussion on art within the play is one I had already been having for years without realizing it, and when I finally found it put onto paper so eloquently, I simply couldn’t look away,” he said. “ ‘Red’ is a performed thesis on the importance of art for the modern age, which can be easy to lose track of in the troubled times we live in. After a year of theatre being gone, there is simply not a better play for theatre to come back with.”

It’s also remarkable since the Brunner Theatre Center production has been put together in just two weeks, Odenkirk said.

“Putting any play on in such a short amount of time is always difficult, but it was made easier by working with Mike, an actor who consistently shows up fully prepared on day one,” he said. “For the most part, a good deal of a play can be completely finished before anyone even steps foot into a rehearsal space (sound, the lighting plot, the costume/set design, etc.); but ‘Red’ presents a new challenge in that there is a great deal of tangibility to the actions taking place on stage.

“We must prepare to mix, staple, measure, and complete canvases in front of the audience, which are all skills that take time away from rehearsals to learn. If anything, that has been the greatest challenge so far,” Odenkirk said of painting.


“The greatest challenge of ‘Red’ is the great deal of artistic creation happening onstage. It isn’t a constant, of course, but to create even the illusion of these tasks takes a great deal of effort and forethought,” he said. “The things we do alone are difficult, and correcting their timing

Close Quad-Cities Acting Pair Recreate Colorful Work of Theatrical Art

Schulz as the tortured abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, who took his own life at age 66.

can become its own challenge.

This is his seventh show working with Schulz, “and it remains an absolute pleasure,” Odenkirk wrote. “We actually had several other shows lined up before the pandemic hit, and while it’s disappointing they never came to fruition, I’m very happy with the limited amount of work we’ve been able to put on in the last year. It is very possible that ‘Red; will be my final show in the QC for the foreseeable future, as I am moving to Chicago almost immediately after.

“By virtue of that change, I am unsure of when I’ll have the chance to work with Mike again; but rest assured I would in a heartbeat, as there are few I’ve met who are as committed to the art form as him.”

Close Quad-Cities Acting Pair Recreate Colorful Work of Theatrical Art

Schulz, left, as the 20th-century abstract artist and Tristan Odenkirk as his young assistant in “Red.”

“ ‘Red’ is the perfect play to tie up our years-long partnership, and I can’t wait to get onstage with him in front of a QC audience for what could be our last time,” he added.

Another Augustana 2020 graduate, Samantha Flipp, serves as stage manager while the rest of the production includes artistic director Jackie McCall, company manager Joe Oliger, technical director and designer Cameron L. Strandin, costumer Megan Hoppe, and crew members Lauren Clarke, Trinity Filut, Synthia Gonzalez, Roger Pavey, Sammy Ramont, Riley Scranton, and Sarah Walton.

“There’s not much that I enjoy more than talking about art and culture, especially with people who are more clever and knowledgeable than I,” Bodenbender said by e-mail. “Mark Rothko was certainly such a person, and Red — which draws heavily from Rothko’s writings — gives us a chance to hear his thoughts on art, the process of creating, and what it’s like to live the life of an artist.


“We get to see Rothko grapple with his fear of losing his passion for life and art, of becoming irrelevant; at the same time, we watch as he irascibly shares his wisdom with a member of the generation of artists that he fears will supplant him,” she said.

Red is an incredibly well-written play that explores the personality of a great artist at his prime, and I’m incredibly grateful to Mississippi Bend Players for the opportunity to direct it.”

Bodenbender said she loves a short, intense rehearsal process, which this has been.

“So long as everyone involved has adequately prepared beforehand, it puts a particular kind of pressure on the production that I find exhilarating,” she said. “That’s absolutely been the case with this production. I don’t mean to imply that there haven’t been difficulties; there always are, in theatre. But it has been a delight to overcome them with the team working to produce Red.”

 “Literate, articulate and thoughtful”

Below are excerpts from the Dispatch/Argus review I wrote of the initial QCTW production of “Red” in August 2012:

Like its only characters — abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and his young (fictional) assistant, Ken — “Red” is

Close Quad-Cities Acting Pair Recreate Colorful Work of Theatrical Art

Mississippi Bend Players is a professional summer stock company based at Augustana College, Rock Island.

bracing, literate, articulate and thoughtful. In the debut production of the new, ambitious QC Theatre Workshop, the bold, passionate John Logan play is brought to raw, thrilling life with sensitive, intense, immensely satisfying performances by Mike Schulz as the famous, temperamental master and Thomas Alan Taylor as his (at first) nervous, innocent apprentice.

While “Red” runs just one act, in less than two hours, it plows a lot of intellectual ground — covering a period from 1958 to 1959, when Rothko is working on a commission to create murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram building. All the action takes place in the artist’s New York studio, a converted gymnasium, especially appropriate given this production has transformed the former Johnson School gym into a sleek, visually stunning theater. We also see a number of re-creations of Rothko’s red-and-black works.

Rothko is the picture of a tortured artist — demanding, prickly, moody, hyper-sensitive, and as Ken later says, titanically self-absorbed. For all the compassion he shows toward art and great artists, he displays none for Ken, failing to express interest in his life or paintings.

Rothko berates Ken from the start, telling him he is not his teacher, friend or father, only an employer; it’s a cold, demeaning relationship, in which Ken is basically a slave. Yet Rothko asks his opinion of the art, ordering him to meet his paintings halfway and engage with them as if they’re living. To Rothko, they actually are.

“Selling a picture is like sending a blind child into a room with razor blades — it’s never been hurt before,” he says of the risk and courage it takes to make something new. Later, Rothko questions his relevance, since he’s being eclipsed by a wave of younger artists who are admired by Ken, like the Pop Art movement exemplified by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

He decries art that is simple, commercial and disposable, lamenting that people want things that are pretty.

We see the conflict between what Rothko’s murals represent and the superficial extravagance and luxury of the Four Seasons, as well as what ultimately happened with that project and a chilling description of what it was like to be in that restaurant, but not belong there.

Like great artists, “Red” is inspiring, and in itself a work of profoundly moving art. As is true of any art, it takes daring and bravery to bare your soul in public.

The new production will be performed Thursday through Saturday (June 17-19) at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 20 at 2 p.m. in Brunner Theatre Center, 3750 7th Ave., Rock Island, at Augustana College. Tickets are available at or by calling 309-794-7306.