— David Coomber and Jim Mezon. Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Red celebrates art and artists: their mysteries, mastery and misery. In local superstar Kim Collier’s Canadian Stage/Vancouver Playhouse/Citadel Theatre co-production, this Tony Award-winning two-hander sizzles with ideas and practically explodes with the aggressive energy of its central character.
The play immerses us in the self-absorbed world of American painter Mark Rothko. Played with ferocious, relentless bluster by Jim Mezon, Rothko attacks his canvases, furiously belittles the philistines who don’t appreciate his work, and verbally abuses his patient young assistant, Ken (the charming David Coomber).
We spend our time in Rothko’s late-1950s Manhattan studio where he is creating a suite of large, abstract paintings in variations of red and black for an upscale restaurant in the new Seagram’s building.
The obvious contradictions between his spiritual, elitist notions of art and the crass commercialism of this commission don’t emerge until the end. In the meantime Ken’s questions and Rothko’s harangues tease out in fascinating ways the meanings of those rectangular masses of colour that float across Rothko’s canvases. The apparently simple notion of “red” is revealed to be complex and multifaceted.
This rich play of smart ideas assumes that its audience already knows some art history. Along with disquisitions on Caravaggio, Matisse and Jackson Pollock, we learn how Rothko’s mid-20th century generation of abstractionists replaced Picasso and the once-revolutionary cubists, and in turn are being overtaken by the Lichtensteins and Warhols, the soon-to-be masters of pop culture with their cartoons and soup cans.
Rothko, the lion in winter, roars against the new age of American optimism and artistic populism. A Russian-Jewish immigrant, he carries a deep Old World darkness inside him that comes out through the black in his paintings and his constant negativity. The trouble is he rages and roars about everything so after a while we’re tempted to stop listening. While admirably committed and energetic, Mezon’s performance rarely strays from that one bellowing note.
Coomber’s good-natured Ken provides a nice contrast. Ken has a personal past even darker than Rothko’s but he hasn’t succumbed to it. The play becomes most interesting after Ken gains the confidence to challenge what the Master offers as self-evident truths. The monologue becomes a dialogue.
Along with Rothko’s canvases, the production treats us visually to the shimmering colours of the triangular screen that appears on David Boechler’s set during scene changes, Alan Brodie’s shifting lighting and Brian Johnson’s handsome projections. Andy Creeggan’s original music complements the Schubert and Mozart records Rothko plays while working.
Rothko quotes Goya: “We have art that we may not perish from truth.” Red shows us how the salvation of art may be found in unexpected places.