Allan Morgan as Mark Rothko and Braden Griffiths as Rothko’s young assistant. Photo credits Trudie Lee Photogaphy
April 30 – May 18, 2013
Martha Cohen Theatre
Listen to my review of Red on CBC Eyeopener at http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/2013/05/06/jessica-goldman-reviews-red/
“What do you see”? It’s the question Mark Rothko, the famous abstract expressionist painter asks his new studio assistant as he considers one of the works in progress. “Red”, the assistant replies causing Rothko to condemn his quotidian response and embark on a profound lecture about hues, palates and the art of viewing one of his paintings. Rothko’s diatribe is wordy, cerebral, insightful, full of ego and most of all opinion.
This expounding dynamic delivered in a series of acerbic arguments is played out en masse in John Logan’s Tony Award winning Red, a slice of life biography of a fifty-five year old Rothko. Set in 1958, the play takes place over five days in Rothko’s studio as he works on a series of murals for the posh Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s iconic Seagram Building. Rothko has been paid an exorbitant commission ($35k) to create these site-specific works and his dream for these paintings, anthropomorphically referred to and thought of as his children, is that they will transform the space into a chapel where people will contemplate the work and nothing else. The audience knows Rothko is kidding himself if he thinks a high-priced restaurant for movers and shakers is the right place for his creations. The young nameless studio assistant also knows Rothko is making a mistake. The trajectory of Red then is watching the assistant go from scared underling to boldly challenging Rothko on everything from his views of modern art to his decision to accept the Seagram commission.
Directed by Vanessa Porteous with an ironically colourless set design by Narda McCarroll, Red gives us plenty of intellectual meat to chew on but somehow the passion isn’t there. Alan Morgan’s Rothko is a superlative mix of physical tics ranging from a hunched back to anxious smoking to squinty eyed thinking to a kind of angsty shuffle. Even his New York whine is well crafted. But what Porteous and Morgan don’t give us is the mercurial side of Rothko, the side that bullies and frightens his assistant and is therefore something powerful to overcome when the protégé finally stands up. Just as problematic dramatically is the lack of torture in this Rothko. Morgan’s take is more neurotically pissed off (think a more serious Larry David) than deeply wounded soul. The result is that when Rothko’s heart is finally broken at the end play, the audience’s heart doesn’t break along with him. Looking beyond the play, there is no indication in Morgan’s performance that Rothko’s despondency and tortured soul will finally get the best of him. In 1970, 10 years after the events in Red, Mark Rothko overdosed on barbiturates and cut an artery in his right arm with a razor blade. This may not be part of the story we’re being told in this play, but it’s an important character motivation that was sorely lacking.
Braden Griffiths as the assistant has far less to work with in this fairly thankless role and he does so with varying degrees of competence. A superfluous scene that deals with his parents’ murder feels forced while his darting and weaving with Rothko is a decent if all too earnest foil. Ultimately it is not the assistant the audience wants to see but what Rothko makes of him and of himself with the assistant. However with any real tension neutered between the two men, who often come across as peers instead of master and servant, the assistant is thrust too far into the spotlight showing the flaws in Logan’s two dimensional treatment of his character.
But where Logan fails in creating a compelling assistant, he triumphs in dialogue. An unabashed ‘thinkie-talkie’ play, Red grabs you by the brains and doesn’t let go. Art vs. commerce, the evolution of an artist and his place amongst peers and a new generation, Nietzsche, the tyranny of feeling ‘fine’ and the fear of being found wanting. These topics all get full consideration making Red one of the most heady bio-pic pieces of theatre ever written. Throw in plenty of voyeurism about what really goes on in an artist’s studio (eggs in the paint, anyone?) and you certainly have a smartly entertaining 90 minutes of theatre. But just as Rothko asserts that he wants his paintings to “tear your heart out”, I too wanted to feel more deeply than this production allowed. Instead I fear that Rothko’s deeply disliked notion of ‘fine’ is probably an apt word for what was presented.
For Rothko fans or visual art buffs – Getting inside the famous painter’s process and thinking is fascinating and you’ll be delighted with the many references to painters and styles throughout the play. Will this production jibe with your greater knowledge of Rothko and his fate? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ride. SEE IT
For non-art fans – To say the themes in this play are universal would be stretching it somewhat. Yes, Red is ultimately a character study beyond just Rothko’s vocation as a painter. But no doubt you will miss many of the references or contextual arguments and that might put you off. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Thinkie-talkies are generally not your speed and this one may be far too much talk and not enough action for your taste. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – It’s a lesser production of a powerfully interesting play. If you’ve seen it elsewhere then preserve your memory, if not, then sure, add it to your canon. SEE IT