Adding a splash of colour to live theatre

Canadian Stage’s production explores the life of painter Mark Rothko


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Canadian Stage’s new production of Red, by screenwriter John Logan of Gladiator and Aviator fame, is a rare kind of theatre in that it confronts another art form — in this case, painting. Specifically, the life, attitudes and times of one of the most talented and loved abstract impressionists, Russian-born American Mark Rothko.

Now, how to make a study of modern art interesting, especially to an audience who may not know Rothko’s work, even if they do recognize the references to Matisse, Picasso, Jackson Pollock and the rise of pop art and Andy Warhol? For starters, the excellent program that is handed out, filled with profiles of Rothko and others, is great reading for anyone who is not a devotee of modern art.

It’s not essential that you know or love painting to enjoy this 100-minute play that runs without an intermission. It is a study of father/son, teacher/student, male/male relations as much as of the world of modern art, but the cries of “Let the painting embrace you!” and “These pictures deserve passion!” can be shattering, and lines such as “There’s tragedy in every brush stroke!” could well raise your respect for the art form.

And there are some verbal exchanges between the two painters that recall George and Martha’s in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf of nearly five decades ago. Red is not totally successful as a work of theatre despite all its Tony Awards, but I’m glad to have seen it and to recommend it to audiences: it is both a brave and powerful work. And it forced me to think a lot more about the act of creation in the modern world.

It doesn’t always work, as this is not a physically active show — there are only two characters: one, the aging artist, and the other, a young painter who becomes Rothko’s assistant at the peak of the artist’s career in his late 50s. But there is a striking moment when a giant canvas is painted before our eyes, leading to spontaneous applause and joy from the audience.

Director Kim Collier is a wonderful craftsperson working with a triangular stage and curtain, upon which Rothko paintings and dates of the action are often projected.

She could not have found or directed a better performer than Jim Mezon, whose career I have followed with appreciation and great love for several decades, and whose Big Daddy in this past summer’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Shaw Festival was a highlight.

Alongside Mezon is a remarkable new talent in David Coomber, a recent graduate of the Ryerson Theatre School. I foresee a great career ahead of him based on his powerful, often stunning performance as Rothko’s assistant.

Red runs until Dec. 17 at the Bluma Appel Theatre. For more information, go to www.canadianstage.com.

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