Theatre review: Red – a perfect balance of the intellectual and emotional

You don’t have to know a lick about art to enjoy the Vancouver Playhouse’s current offering Red, thanks to two terrific performances and a script that never talks down to, nor dumbs things down for, its audience.

In 1958 artist Mark Rothko received a commission to paint a series of murals for the newly opened Four Seasons restaurant in New York.  It is against this backdrop that playwright John Logan has taken the real-life abstract-expressionist painter and thrown him inside his studio with a fictional assistant in a play that explores both the relationship between master and apprentice and that of art and artist.

The duality of Logan’s script continues in Jim Mezon’s enormous performance as Rothko, giving us both the pompous artist and the man fearful that perhaps his place in the world of art is tenuous.  By showing both sides, there is such a depth to Mezon’s Rothko that we are simultaneously attracted and repulsed.  If we are to believe that Rothko could have such contempt for those that viewed his work is a testamount to Mezon’s craft that he is able to make Rothko as sympathetic as he does.

Adding to the tension, David Coomber as his fictional assistant moves Rothko’s heady internal struggle to the external.  Through Ken, the playwright provides us with a more relatable exploration as to the place art plays in our individual lives.  Where it would have been easy to play a simple counter argument to the famous artist’s views, Coomber’s vitality and enthusiasm is as great as the cynicism Mezon brings to Rothko.

Jim Mezon and David Coomber in the Vancouver Playhouse co-production of Red.
Jim Mezon and David Coomber in Red at the Vancouver Playhouse through February 4, 2012.

Set designer David Boechler presents us with a realistic representation of Rothko’s studio, but by placing two walls that extend at 45 degree angles towards the audience, creates additional tension to match what is happening on stage.  Using the two moveable walls as a canvas for projections by Brian Johnson, the space also becomes a literal representation of Rothko’s isolation to the world’s reaction to his work.  Lighting designer Alan Brodie’s colour palette plays against Rothko’s bold work but at times it became a distraction and felt somehow unnecessary.

Director Kim Collier brings it all together in a near perfect balance of the intellectual and emotional; just like art should.

4 Out of 5 Stars Red

By John Logan.  Directed by Kim Collier.  A Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company co-production with Canadian Stage and The Citadel Theatre.  On stage at the Vancouver Playhouse through February 4, 2012.  Visit http://www.vancouverplayhouse.com for tickets and information.

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