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Jim Mezon as Mark Rothko in the Canadian Stage production of Red.

Bruce Zinger

3 out of 4 stars

John Logan's 2009 play Red, about the abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko, is a real paint-by-numbers affair.

Place a famous figure on the stage, add in a fictional young assistant, let the former lecture and hector and mentor the latter for 90 minutes and then tack on a feel-good conclusion. Voilà, collect the Tony Award for best new play and watch your work spread across the continent like wildfire. Who said art wasn't easy?

And yet, despite its rudimentary nature, Red – getting a strong Canadian premiere in Toronto before travelling to Edmonton's Citadel Theatre and the Vancouver Playhouse next year – does provides an excellent arena for a pair of actors to mimic the master-apprentice relationship in front of an audience and strut their stuff.

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Jim Mezon, the magnificent, meaty star of the Shaw Festival, burrows deep into the character of Rothko, giving a rowdy performance that involves much bluster and splatter, but is particularly exquisite in its mournful silences. It's worth the price of admission simply to watch him smoke and lose himself in the colours of his canvases in one of the many pretty stage pictures painted by director Kim Collier.

As his assistant Ken, newcomer David Coomber is a wiry fellow whose performance oozes with a freshness and ambition that is just right for the role. He has an air of over-eagerness, with a big, toothy smile that occasionally threatens to swallow his entire face. And yet, despite his best efforts, Ken is a character that, ultimately, is nothing more than a crude sketch.

Avoiding the standard Hollywood biopic trap of trying to squeeze in a whole life, Logan has chosen to tell the story of a single art project, specifically the series of murals Rothko was commissioned to paint for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building at the end of the 1950s.

Rothko hoped these dark red, maroon and black canvases would make viewers feel "trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall." If you've ever stood reverently in front of them at the Tate Modern in London, the denouement of Red won't come as much of a surprise.

The above quotation comes direct from Rothko, though something very similar is spoken in the script. Logan mines Rothko's actual writings and interviews for thought-provoking ruminations on the greats like Matisse and Picasso who came before him, contemporaries like Jackson Pollock and the Pop Art jesters who displaced him.

In all its philosophizing about art and the war between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, however, Red has the misfortune of following I Send You This Cadmium Red in the Canadian Stage season; that creation discussed art and colour in more original terms, and had the humility not to disguise itself as drama. (Paradoxically, it also ended up being much more moving.)

As for the actual design of this play about art, David Boechler's sculptural set doesn't disappoint. It's a realistic replica of Rothko's studio, but angled so that one corner juts straight out into the audience like a threat. Two moving white walls can seal the studio off, so that during scene changes it looks as if a giant cube has crashed into the theatre – an impression that becomes somewhat ironic later when Rothko boasts of having destroyed the cubists.

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Within the scenes, Alan Brodie's lighting and Andy Creeggan's score often impose themselves upon the action, taking their cue from the naming of a colour or feeling in the script. Collier's overall conception of the show is not quite abstract or expressionist enough to make these moments seem like anything more than an intrusion.

Red

  • Written by John Logan
  • Directed by Kim Collier
  • Starring Jim Mezon and David Coomber
  • At Canadian Stage in Toronto

Red continues at Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre until Dec. 17.

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