Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Warehouse opens season with red-hot work by award-winning but virtually unknown American dramatist

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You definitely won't recognize the face of American scribe John Logan and it's likely you don't even recall his name, but you certainly know his work.

In theatre, he was an unknown talent before writing the Tony Award-winning 2009 bio-drama about abstract painter Mark Rothko called Red, which opens tonight at the RMTC Warehouse. Last season, Red was the most produced play in North America and this year it's a go-to title again.

Film is where Logan's credits will impress. His status as an A-list Hollywood screenwriter was secured in 2000 when he turned in the script for the blockbuster Gladiator and was nominated for an Academy Award. He made the Oscar short list again in 2004 for penning The Aviator, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio. Last year alone he adapted the screenplays for Hugo -- that garnered him another Oscar nomination -- as well as the Oscar-nominated animated comedy Rango and the Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus.

This year hasn't been a letdown either, thanks to Bond, James Bond. Logan, 51, is the co-writer of Skyfall, the latest in the famous 007 film franchise, which opens Nov. 9 in Winnipeg. His script was so well-received that he's been given the plum job of sole author of the next two instalments. He also wrote the initial version of Lincoln, the Steven Spielberg biographical drama about the American president also set to open this month.

Along with his Bonding, Logan's current to-do list includes adapting the Broadway hit Jersey Boys for the big screen while collaborating with rock icon Patti Smith on a movie version of her memoir Just Kids.

With that kind of output, Logan will not remain a mystery pen for long.

"I had never heard of John Logan, although I had seen Gladiator and Hugo," says Michael Shamata, the director of Red and artistic director of Victoria's Belfry Theatre, which is co-producing the run. "I loved Hugo -- I thought that was a beautiful film."

Red looks at Rothko in 1958, just after he has been commissioned (for $35,000) to create a mural series for the ultramodern Seagram Building's Four Seasons eatery -- apparently the single biggest commission for a mural piece since the Sistine Chapel. The Russian-born painter was part of the abstract expressionist movement that made New York City and the United States the focal point of the international art world for the first time.

Rothko's work on the murals triggers a creative and intellectual crisis, which Logan explores by partnering the opinionated Rothko with a fictitious new assistant who allows him to speak his mind about art.

"What I responded to is having people onstage talking about art in a way a layman can respond to and understand," Shamata says. "I love the arguments that are in it, the passion.

"I really felt it was opening a door to a world. I didn't understand visual art; I understand it better now. Hopefully our audiences will as well."

Red is dedicated to Stephen Sondheim "for reminding me." In 2007 the San Diego-born Logan wrote the screenplay for and produced the film version of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, starring Johnny Depp. During filming, the famous American composer and lyricist kept badgering Logan to come back to the stage because theatre needs good writers.

When a theatre god asks, a lowly playwright acquiesces. While in London working on Sweeney Todd, Logan visited the Tate Modern gallery and saw Rothko's so-called Four Seasons murals; he was gobsmacked.



"I couldn't breathe," Logan has said in several interviews. "It was almost as though someone had punched me in the stomach. There was something so striking and compelling about them that I couldn't tear myself away."

Logan read about how they were created and was inspired to write about this haunted man and his art, which exhibited tragedy in every brush stroke.

"Rothko talks about red representing hope and symbolizing the life force," says Shamata, 57, whose directing credits at RMTC are The Real Thing, Hosanna and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "He says the thing he's most afraid of in life is that one day the black will swallow the red. It references his bouts of depression, this fear that the black would overtake the life force."

Over the course of his career Logan has been preoccupied with the psychology of creation, as seen in his screen profiles of historical figures including Howard Hughes (The Aviator), Orson Welles (RKO-281), Georges Méliès (Hugo) and Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln). He is fundamentally not interested in happy people; he is drawn again and again to the broken person seeking to become whole.

"Theatre people say you are either a comedian or a tragedian and I'm a tragedian," Logan has said. "The vexing, dark characters, the ones where I don't understand their pain or their anguish, they are the characters that appeal to me."


A smart buy

In Red, Mark Rothko expresses concern that his challenging work is misunderstood, only sought after by philistine collectors as a good investment.

The HBO TV series Mad Men makes the same point in a 2008 episode in which a Rothko painting is bought by advertising agency co-owner Bert Cooper. Several staff members sneak into Cooper's office to view the $10,000 canvas depicting brooding quadrants of dissolving colours.

Media buyer Harry Crane doesn't know what to make of it and says, "There must be a brochure somewhere that explains it."

His colleague, Ken Cosgrove, advises that they're just supposed to experience it. "It's like looking into something very deep, like you could fall into it," he says.

Later Cooper questions Crane about the work and Crane confesses his ignorance of modern art. Crane asks Cooper what he sees in the painting and the boss barks it's none of his business but then confides, "Between you, me and the lamppost, that thing should double in value by next Christmas."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 1, 2012 c1


Updated on Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 10:20 AM CDT: changes headline, adds fact box

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