Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Play gives audience inside look at messy, moving world of high art

  • Print

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.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Total Body Tune-Up: Farmer's Carry

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • JOE.BRYKSA@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Local-(Standup photo)- Humming Around- A female ruby -throated hummingbird fly's through the bee bomb  flowers Friday at the Assiniboine Park English Garden- Nectar from flowers are their main source of food. Hummingbirds wings can beat as fast as 75x times second. Better get a glimpse of them soon the birds fly far south for the winter - from Mexico to South America- JOE BRYKSA/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS- Sept 10, 2009
  • Ruth Bonneville Winnipeg Free Press January 18, 2011 Local Standup -

View More Gallery Photos


What do you think of the government's announcement that there will be no balanced provincial budget until 2018?

View Results

Ads by Google