Enter Stage Left

Red, written by playwright John Logan, is a tour de force that begs the question; do all good artists have to suffer tragic lives to be successful? Picasso, Pollock, Van Gogh, Caravaggio, all suffered through their art. The answer is, they must, of course. Except, according to Mark Rothko, “Rothko”.

And must they be a slave to their art, only selling to museums and connoisseurs and not to the hoity-toity for “over mantels”?

“All well-known artists have an aura of tragedy around them”. Mark Rothko had a plethora of tragedy around him. In fact, Friedrich Nietzsche’s, The Birth of Tragedy, had a strong influence on him and is mentioned throughout the play. Rothko (Randy Hughson) was an abstract artist who was commissioned to paint canvases for the up-scale restaurant in the new Seagram’s building in New York. His assistant, Ken, (Jesse Aaron Dwyre) questions Rothko’s artistic integrity. He accuses Rothko of selling out.

The play opens up to the contemplative sounds of classical music (which plays through much of the play, but is never distracting) with Rothko sitting on stage. Actually, he has been sitting on stage for a full 20 minutes whilst the audience filters into the theatre. He is staring at an imaginary painting. “What do you see?” he asks Ken, who has tripped onto the stage. “Red”.

Rothko sees the colour red as his Life Force, and black, as Death. “I fear one day that black will swallow the red”.

He makes his feelings about his art very clear. He demands that Ken view a painting “with sensitivity. Paintings deserve that.” He is deeply attached to his work, feeling that good, loving homes must be found for them. Throughout the play, he questions whether the walls of a restaurant, above knives and forks clattering on china, with absurd elitist chattering women at tables, is a good, loving home.

The play is not only about the artist and his place in society and society’s acceptance of his work, but it is also about guidance and sharing professional expertise with those longing to learn. He does spit out some excellent advice: “You cannot be an artist unless you are civilized and you cannot be civilized unless you learn”. But his overall treatment of Ken is sometimes questionable.

Hughson attacks the role of Rothko with great freedom and abandonment and a strong visceral energy that holds our attention unwaveringly throughout the play. I can’t help but wonder, though, if there weren’t other colours to the temperament he exudes. In that sense, his search for power and reason rang out one dimensionally – anger, after all, isn’t always shouting. That said, the man’s performance is stellar, wondrously contained and establishes a marvellous presence on stage.

Dwyre, the other half of this two hander, has a fine growth of character from those first terrified moments he has with Rothko, to the point where he finally dares to stand up to him, dares to question his integrity. His is a well-tuned performance, clearly executed with skill and honesty, from start to finish an emotional and spiritual journey.

Eo Sharp, set designer, has deftly replicated the actual studio that Rothko rented to paint the commissioned pieces. Splotches of red paint on the floor, large canvases, old tins with red paint, and a small portable record player with a box of classical records down stage right – even the very measurements of the stage are near those of Rothko’s original studio.

Robert Thompson’s lighting was gloriously subtle, moody and oh, so right for the spirit of the play. His blend of colour is Art in itself.

Director, Martha Henry has taken on a difficult task with this erudite piece of work. Her ability to allow the actors free rein in the process of creation, while holding them to the confines of the one room set, gives much reminder of Sartre’s No Exit. She knows her rhythms, holds to the pace and marches us through the riveting developments and challenging ends. This is a talented lady.  One of Canada’s best.

Red is on at The Segal Theatre until December 16. For more information 524-739-7944
or www.segalcentre.org

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