I didn’t particularly enjoy the first time I saw John Logan’s Red. And while that was four years ago, I was a little nervous about seeing it again. But I shouldn’t have been. This second chance to see Red (playing at Walterdale until October 22) was much better now that I’m older and (hopefully a little) wiser.
The first time I saw Red, I was young – barely out of school and only starting to learn a little about art and artistic sensibilities. I was overwhelmed by the complexity of the piece – the verbosity, the elaborate vocabulary both characters speak in, and the extensive references to various painters, writers, and other artists strewn throughout the play.
But seeing Red again at Walterdale, the deeper understanding I had of the play surprised me, very similar to my experience of seeing Molière’s The Misanthrope for a second time at Walterdale a few years ago. And I should note that my friend, who wrote this reaction, loved the production of Red we saw 4 years ago that I just didn’t get.
Red is Rothko’s thesis on art and creation
Red is a play for those who have an appreciation of art, the artistic process and creativity. In Red, we meet Mark Rothko (played by Mark Finlay) in 1958 as he works on the Seagram Murals for the Four Seasons restaurant and in the process shares his thoughts (really, more of a thesis) on art and creation with his assistant Ken (played by Ben Osgood).
Rothko is a proponent of the “high arts”, and rails against the “low arts”, commercialisation and the attitude that “art is what you can get away with”(as proposed by either Andy Warhol or Marshall McLuhan). To Rothko, art is something that lives and breathes – it has needs that the artist has to fulfil. And the viewer of the art has to put in the work to absorb the art and to hear what it wants the viewer to know, but only once the art is ready to release that secret. Art requires discipline and patience – as evidenced by the “bankers hours” Rothko keeps. Not like the Pop Art movement Rothko is particularly vehement against, with their drug-fueled parties that go on until who knows what time in the night. As Rothko says, for him “90% of painting is thinking”, versus Pop Art, which (according to Rothko) just gives people what they want (or think they want) and just exists for people to glance at or refer to as a status symbol as it hangs above their mantel.
No matter which side of the debate you come down on, we are reminded through Red that art and artistic creation is a continuous stream of evolution. As Rothko says at the beginning of the play of the cubist artists he and his contemporaries succeeded – respect the father but kill him. By the end of the play, we see Rothko’s realization that he has moved from the metaphorical child to father.
As Rothko, Mark Finlay has made a quick return to Walterdale’s stage, following his role as Molokov in last season’s closer, Chess. Mark’s handling of the John Logan’s complex dialogue (at times, seemingly a monologue) is impressive. While Ben Osgood’s character, Ken, is much quieter than Rothko, Ben subtly transformed his character over the course of the play so we see him coming into his own (killing the father, so to speak). The interaction between the two actors was fun to watch as well – with Ben absorbing and reflecting the energy that Mark was expending, although I felt as though the exchange of energy didn’t exactly match the story arc of the play (Ken comes into his own before Rothko has reached his peak).
Lights and set the perfect complement to Red‘s script
Final shout outs go to Set Designer and Master Painter (among numerous other duties) Joan Hawkins and Lighting Designer Brad Melrose for the way their work complemented Red‘s script. First off – when you enter the theatre at Walterdale, take a minute to truly appreciate the extensive brickwork that Joan and her paint crew (Dylan Mah, Valerie Miller, and Alison Murata) have created – I can’t fathom how long it took Joan and the crew to create all of those bricks. Being the daughter of an artist (and also knowing Joan personally), I can tell Joan is an artist by the way she designed the set pieces that fill Rothko’s studio – they’re the perfect mix of ordered chaos that I think is present in every artist’s studio.
I also loved the way Joan collaborated with Brad Melrose to help the audience imagine the five canvasses Rothko works on throughout the show. At the edge of the stage, there are five spots with concentrated faint red paint splatters, highlighted by a very focused red light to represent the paintings that, because of copyright, cannot be shown. The effect during scene transitions when the red glow is more noticeable is a delightful detail.
Red runs until October 22