“Art is a partnership not only between those who are living but between those who are dead and those who are yet to be born.” ∼ Edmund Burke
If Mark Rothko could only have understood his impact on future generations instead of feeling threatened by the pop art movement that succeeded his abstract expressionist art, he would not have been so obsessed with his own death. Canadian Stage‘s riveting production of the Tony Award winning play, Red, ostensibly about Rothko’s commission to paint several murals in the new Four Seasons Restaurant in New York’s revolutionary Seagram Building, is really the story of the seasoned veteran challenged by his young mentee, who represents a generation of up-and-coming artists.
Rothko’s main grievance against the pop art movement dominated by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns is its disposability and lack of meaning. Rothko’s paintings, on the contrary, are his offspring, so much so that he wants to shelter them from the outside world. In fact, he is comforted by the fact that his restaurant paintings will be grouped together “to protect each other.” Logan’s rapid-fire writing shines in Rothko’s unintentionally humorous monologue that also demonstrates Rothko’s fear of triviality about bourgeoisie art buyers who are more concerned that a painting will match their sofa or if it comes in “peach” than in its power to engage.
Jim Mezon is a powerhouse on stage whose Rothko is ornery, volatile, fearful and insecurely egotistical while belittling his charge yet he is not entirely without empathy. David Coomber, who could easily get lost when pitted against the overpowering Mezon, captures the initial naiveté and optimism of the young artist Ken and then gradually infuses his character with defiance in order to eventually confront Rothko. Coomber skilfully mesmerizes the audience as he unravels the dark details of Ken’s past.
Projections designer Brian Johnson’s pop art montage of iconic sixties’ images such as Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy effectively documents for younger audiences the representational art that Rothko detested. Alan Brodie’s artful lighting underscores Rothko’s fear of natural light as well as demonstrates the dramatic effects of lighting on art and the artist’s contention that art illuminates from within. The diagonal stage, which juts out into the audience, eliminates the theatre’s fourth wall, pulling us into Rothko’s studio and world. Enormous murals dominate the stage suggesting Rothko’s over-sized ego.
John Logan’s superb writing is well paced with vivid imagery such as Rothko’s contention that parting with his art is “like sending a blind child into a room full of razor blades” and culminates in Rothko’s spectacularly accurate monologue about the pretentious behaviour of restaurant clientele and waitstaff.
The 92-minute play ebbs and flows like the movement in Rothko’s paintings, with slow, deliberate battles that lead to fast bursts of dialogue and choreography, including the lightning speed painting of the foundation of a real-life mural performed by both actors and resulting in a gruelling physical workout.
If, as Rothko notes, “most of a painting is thinking,” then Canadian Stage’s production of Red requires much reflection to appreciate this dynamic work as a whole.
Red, at the Bluma Appel Theatre at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front St. E.., runs until December 17, 2011. Written by John Logan. Directed by Kim Collier.