Geordie Johnson as Mark Rothko. Photo by Timothy Richard Photography
The sound of a bustling city fill the dark theatre. It begins with Rothko at the front of the stage. Intense and staring out at the audience, which is really the fourth wall where a painting is. He’s contemplating it. His new assistant enters the room and they start talking about the unseen painting and art. This is RED, a play about painter Mark Rothko’s commission to create a series of paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York in 1958.
Neptune gave me a couple of tickets and I went to see the matinee this past Saturday. Set on a sparse set representing Rothko’s New York studio, it’s a great space to explore ideas about art, artists, and commerce in a fascinating transitional time in the art world. But this isn’t an essay, but a drama, so the space is used effectively and reconfigured throughout the play as Rothko and his assistant work on the paintings. We mostly see the interstitial moments where they are preparing or cleaning up as Rothko struggles with creating the paintings and coming to terms with what it means to be sponsored to create. Bits of biographical information a sprinkled throughout the play and his fictionalized assistant has a back story of his own that provides another character arc and counterpoint to Rothko’s story. Geordie Johnson brings an intensity to the role of Mark Rothko and Noah Reid provides a solid counterpoint to the strongly drawn main character.
The space is fascinating with large canvasses around the three walls and they art moved and turned to provide a changing space that ranges from sparse white to walls of red. The lighting goes up and down during the play as well, creating different moods and views of the abstract expressionist paintings in the room. One particularly striking scene has both characters energetically painting a large blank canvas in the middle of the stage. The music swells as they paint and the music is used effectively throughout the play. It’s simple, clear, and powerful.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a play and I so glad that I went. The excitement of live theatre is something that I missed. Sitting close to the stage and the actors and seeing the dust of the paint and the paint dripping from the canvas was lovely. The performance has no intermission, so the 90 minutes zip by quickly as we watch the characters struggle with art and their approach to it.
RED was written by John Logan who is an accomplished playwright as well as screenwriter. While I hadn’t read or seen any of his plays before, I had seen and enjoyed many of the films that he has written. His two collaborations with Martin Scorsese are some of my favourites with The Aviator adapting the life of Howard Hughes into a sprawling story. His adaptation of Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret into Scorsese’s Hugo is a stunning achievement and the film perfectly balances the biographical and the personal which is the challenge Logan met with RED as well.