Painting the stage Red

For his portrait at the Playhouse, Canadian actor Jim Mezon finds new meaning in the fiery hues of abstractionist Mark Rothko
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When Canadian actor Jim Mezon was preparing for his stage role as the brilliant American abstractionist Mark Rothko, he sat for hours in the Art Gallery of Ontario, staring at that institution’s collection of Rothko paintings. “I don’t know how much I was learning about the man,” Mezon says, “but you certainly get some sense of the depths of feeling he put into his works. It’s impossible not to be affected by them.”

Rothko, who killed himself in his New York studio in 1970 at the age of 66, worked in a surrealistic style before developing, in the late 1940s, his distinctive, simplified form of abstraction. His best-known paintings are composed of two or three soft-edged rectangles of luminous colour floating on an amorphous ground, although later in his career, Rothko replaced the vibrant reds and yellows with sombre blues, greys, and blacks. Critics and art historians have long seen not only pulsing emotion in his work but also profound spirituality.

Mezon, a veteran of stage, film, and TV, and a long-time leading member of the Shaw Festival company, is talking to the Straight by phone from his home in Niagara-on-the-Lake. He’s just returned from a short holiday in New York City and has a day to “unpack, do laundry, and repack” before flying here to star in Red at the Vancouver Playhouse. This city is familiar territory to the Winnipeg-born Mezon, who lived in Vancouver from 1975 to 1982, studied at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre School, and took on a number of demanding roles locally. Those and the characters he’s played since, including disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon in Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon and Nobel Prize–winning physicist Werner Heisenberg in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, have informed his interpretation of Rothko’s complex personality.

“The contradictions are what fascinate me about people like Rothko,” Mezon says. “Someone who has such a huge ego and yet could be so intensely insecure and so remarkably paranoid—and so ill at ease with the world around him.”

Red, which was written by the American playwright and screenwriter John Logan (who wrote the scripts for Gladiator, The Aviator, and Hugo), debuted in 2009 in London, and in 2010 in New York, where it won a flock of Tony awards, including one for best play. The Vancouver Playhouse coproduction, with Toronto’s Canadian Stage and Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, is directed by Kim Collier. Set in the late 1950s, it takes place in Rothko’s studio in the Bowery. Here, the artist philosophizes about the meaning and making of art and expresses his disgust with an upcoming generation of artists, while lecturing, haranguing, and mentoring his young assistant Ken, played by David Coomber. This dialogue unspools and the persona unravels as Rothko works on a big and lucrative commission of paintings for the luxury Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan’s newly constructed Seagram Building.

The play, Mezon says, ultimately reveals Rothko’s inner conflicts. “What you’re dealing with, when you first meet the man, is his dominance—someone who is so sure of himself and so sure of his work and so sure of his beliefs. And watching as the young man in the show begins to understand that and then begins to challenge him. And then you start to see the cracks and the flaws and the insecurities coming out.”

Mezon also talks about the physical nature of the role, and how fit he became while playing Rothko this past fall in Toronto. Except for a few speedy costume changes, he is on-stage for the play’s entire 92 minutes, during which he and Coomber stretch a large canvas, prime it in a kind of frenzy, and paint it in expansive strokes. “I guess I always thought painting was something somewhat more delicate, but not Rothko’s stuff,” Mezon says. “There’s a real physicality to it.” The scale of Rothko’s achievement is remarkable, given his notoriously unhealthy way of life. “It’s a blessing he survived as long as he did, in spite of all the alcohol and cigarettes and poor food and ill health,” Mezon observes. “It’s a testament to something. He must have had terrifically strong shoulders and arms.”

And there’s another contradiction: the forceful physical presence of the man belied his psychological frailties. Rothko suffered from chronic depression, especially following the breakup of his second marriage in 1969. Both the title of the play and the fact that Mezon spends much of it in work clothes splattered with blood-red paint seem to portend the artist’s gruesome end, although his suicide is not portrayed here. Still, it is modernist legend that Rothko slashed his arms with a razor and was found dead in a painting-sized pool of blood.

But red is also one of the principal colours Rothko used in the Seagram paintings, and may represent life and creativity and the essential optimism of the act of making art. “Rothko speaks endlessly about red in relationship to hope,” Mezon says, then adds, “What terrifies him is black.”

Red is at the Vancouver Playhouse from next Thursday (January 19) to February 4.

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