Red is a brilliant platform for its actors
By John Logan. Directed Kim Collier. A Canadian Stage/Vancouver Playhouse/Citadel Theatre coproduction. At the Playhouse on Thursday, January 19. Continues until February 4
The functions of art include the stimulation of our perceptual and emotional capacities. When I was a young man, painter Mark Rothko’s colour-field abstractions opened me up. Now that I’m older, I’m grateful to director Kim Collier’s production of Red, John Logan’s play about Rothko and a fictional assistant, for reminding me of the depth of experience that simple receptivity can bring.
At the beginning of Red, it’s 1958 and Rothko is working on a series of canvases that he was commissioned to produce for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s new Seagram Building. As Ken, Rothko’s helper, points out, it’s the “biggest commission since the Sistine Chapel”. In the completed works, burgundy rectangles hover in fields of darkness. In the play, they’re just being roughed in. The script’s real subjects are art and artists.
Some critics have accused Red of being middlebrow, and to a limited extent that criticism is valid. At one point, Rothko and Ken go on an extended riff, listing all of the varieties of red and evoking associations from lipstick to blood. The passage is clumsy. And the script’s repeated references to the orderly Apollonian impulse in art and the chaotic Dionysian urge can feel deliberate. But you know what? These terms aptly describe the tension in Rothko’s paintings, in which the vibrating emotion of the reds feels like it’s constantly trying to escape from—or survive within—the containment of the black fields that frame them.
And why nitpick about the script when it provides such a brilliant platform for actors? Jim Mezon makes a bombastic Rothko, a terrified bully. As the character poses and makes grand statements about the importance of his paintings, deriding everyone else in the art world, including his clients, Mezon never lets us forget the honesty that drives the guy or the fear of inadequacy that is the flip side of his ambition. It’s a huge performance, but Mezon isn’t showing off; Rothko is.
To his enormous credit, David Coomber, who graduated from Ryerson University’s theatre program in 2010, matches this stellar piece of work almost step for step. In my favourite moments, Coomber’s Ken is surprised, even scared by the words that have popped out of his mouth. This is an impressively subtle performance, especially for such a young actor.
Set designer David Boechler takes the square of a traditional proscenium set and turns it 45 degrees so that one of its corners thrusts toward the audience, matching the script’s boldness and aggression. During scene changes, he closes the front walls of Rothko’s studio with panels that look like giant painter’s canvases. Projection designer Brian Johnson pours the ruddy, muddy colours of Rothko’s masterworks onto them. Lighting designer Alan Brodie’s work is suitably, beautifully expressionistic.
Collier pulled all of this together. This is the same woman who offered us the gift of All the Way Home at the Queen Elizabeth last week. Thanks.