Review: Red (Canadian Stage)

Jim Mezon and David Coomber in Red. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Canadian Stage presents the Canadian premiere of the Tony Award-winning play Red at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts through December 17, 2011.

What is art? If an artist accepts a commission from a big, soulless corporation does it de-legitimize his art? Is he a sell-out? What if he’s being subversive by taking the job to “stick it to the man”? If art becomes too popular does it inherently lose some of its artistic merit?

These are the types of complex, loaded questions all artists must ask of themselves and their work. These are also some of the large central questions explored by playwright John Logan at the heart of his play Red.

Red is essentially a character-study of the brilliant and eccentric New York-based modern abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. It takes place in the artist’s studio over the course of several months in the late 1950s after he was paid the largest commission to an artist of his time to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant at the newly constructed Seagram Building in New York.

Now I’m by no means an art scholar. I mean, I have a passing interest in modern art. After all, it’s one of those things, like ancient Greek literature and fine wine, that all people who consider themselves sufficiently cultured ought to at least be familiar enough with to convincingly feign knowledge in.

I’ve therefore made the requisite perfunctory visits to the MoMA, Le centre Georges Pompidou and the Tate Modern, but like most visitors to these museums, I’m more of a casual observer than any kind of connoisseur when it comes to modern art.

During those visits to the world’s great modern art museums I’ve even espied a few Rothko paintings but I’ve never learned much about the man who painted them so I honestly didn’t have high expectations going into Red; a biographical play about an artist I didn’t know or care much about. Imagine my surprise when, even after close to two intermissionless hours, I sat transfixed in rapt attention.

I think it was the combination of an interesting, well-written script and superb performances that drew me in. As it turns out, you don’t need to have an art history degree to be fascinated by Mark Rothko as a man. Jim Mezon plays Rothko with a focused intensity akin to a laser beam. Whether he was waxing on an existential question or erupting into a fit of rage, I couldn’t help but sit up and pay attention. He really made the character compelling.

David Coomber plays Rothko’s assistant Ken. Though his character is intended more as a device to enable and enhance the exploration of Rothko’s character he ends up being a remarkably sympathetic character in his own right. He serves as a counterpoint to the larger-than-life Rothko and a grounding point for the audience while the great artist goes flying off the handle during his rants.

John Logan’s script is engaging, it kept me thinking throughout and it’s also peppered with just the right amount of humour (usually of the observational variety) to keep it from being too heavy and self-important.

I also liked the production design, David Boechler’s set features panels that slide in and out, giving scene changes a great dynamic quality, combined with Alan Brodie’s lighting the show’s design itself often evokes a Rothko canvas with its shifting hues.

Like many great works of modern art, Red is complex, layered and will offer a lot to those who know the subject well but it’s also accessible and more than worthwhile for us laypeople to look at.

Details:

  • Red is playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front St. E) through December 17, 2011
  • Shows run Monday to Saturday at 8:00PM, Wednesday at 1:30PM and Saturday at 2:00PM
  • Tickets $22 to $99
  • Tickets are available by phone 416.368.3110 , in person at the box office or visit www.canadianstage.com

Photo credit:

– Jim Mezon and David Coomber in Red. Photo by Bruce Zinger