Red challenges the audience from its first words: "What do you see?" demands artist Mark Rothko of his new assistant as he gazes at the audience.
It’s a question that will be asked several times during John Logan’s provocative behind-the-canvas bio-drama that opens the RMTC Warehouse season. What we see is a portrait of an aging lion of abstract expressionism, bristling with debates about art’s place in life. "I am here to stop your heart," Rothko says grandiosely about his raison d’etre.
Logan takes us inside Rothko’s New York City studio, given a messy realism by designer Peter Hartwell, and offers a rare glimpse into an artist’s work life and way of thinking. So while we watch the bearish Rothko and his boyish gofer Ken rant at each other, we also see their physical labour — stretching a canvas onto a frame, mixing paint, cleaning brushes and priming a canvas. The effect is to make the audience feel like insiders, voyeurs watching art being made.
Red catches up to the premier avant-gardist of his time in 1958, when Rothko is obsessed by a series of blood-coloured murals intended to adorn the Four Seasons Restaurant in the newly constructed Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Famous for his colour-field work, Rothko is paid $35,000 (about $2 million today), an ego-inflating sum that he accepts despite his fretting over his misunderstood paintings being hung in such a crassly commercial environment.
Complicating matters is his obsession with his legacy at a time when the barbarians — pop-art philistines like Andy Warhol — are at the gates, threatening his time at the centre of the art world’s stage.
Rothko proves to be the boss from hell, a temperamental, bullying know-it-all. He warns the wannabe painter Ken immediately, "I am not your rabbi, I am not your father, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend, I am not your teacher — I am your employer." Over the next two hours, Rothko becomes all five in what becomes a very intriguing and satisfying Oedipal sub-plot.
Many seeing Red may be unmoved by Rothko’s stark blocks of colour, to which he attached mythic significance. He claims that when properly lit they offer an exalted experience and demonstrates the effect by flipping on fluorescent lights in his studio. Suddenly, his glowing paintings (thanks to Scott Henderson’s superb lighting) literally disappear under the hard glare, a neat stage trick that underlines the protective Rothko’s zealousness about their proper presentation.
Winnipeg-born Vancouver actor Oliver Becker is mostly successful at capturing Rothko as this volcanic, larger-than-life figure, fearful that the red of life will be swallowed by the black. In the first act, Becker, who appeared in God of Carnage at RMTC last season, is not easily heard and some pivotal lines lose their impact. That’s not the case in the second act, especially when he delivers the biting tirade against the Four Seasons and its clientele of rich, clever monkeys and jackals.
Michael Shamata’s direction is admirably unobtrusive, reflected in a key scene where Becker and Jameson Matthew Parker as Ken finally stop talking and their characters do something — priming the large canvas in a tightly choreographed, paint-splattering pas de deux that profoundly alters their relationship.
Parker, in his RMTC debut, finely covers Ken’s arc from worshipful lackey to protegé who can stand up to the mentor. His revelation about the personal effect the paint colour has on him is deftly drawn. Ken represents a new generation of artist and sees the irony of Rothko’s glee over killing off his Cubist predecessors while resisting abstract expressionism’s imminent banishment by pop art.
Their father-son clashes, even over what music to play, are very affecting. Ken has learned well from his master, who said, "The child must banish the father, respect him, but kill him."
We don’t know what becomes of Ken but Rothko followed through on his casual promise: "When I commit suicide, there won’t be any doubt about it." He did in 1970.