Rothko on a Canadian Stage: a Review of Red

Reviewed in this essay:

Red, at the Bluma Appel Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto. Runs until Dec. 17.

Canadian Stage’s audience has been the topic of many news stories since Matthew Joceyln took over as Artistic Director two years ago. Jocelyn, a Canadian director who has worked in Europe for the last 30 years, has radically changed the focus at Canadian Stage to more experimental and director-driven work. Not all audience members are thrilled. So how fitting that the first thing you notice on entering the Bluma Appel Theatre for Canadian Stage’s production of Red is the audience. Lighting Designer Alan Brodie has bathed the house in red light (get it?) and the result is clever, hokey, or brilliant depending on your perspective (I wavered between all three before settling on brilliant).

Red is a bio-drama about Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. Written by John Logan, the play is set in 1958, after Rothko receives a commission to paint for the new Four Seasons restaurant in New York. The action centers on Rothko (the masterful Jim Menzon) and his assistant Ken (a fictional creation of Logan’s, played by David Coomber) in Rothko’s studio.

Jim Menzon’s Rothko is the reason to see this play – his passionate, illuminating rampages are exhilarating and thought-provoking. After Ken tells Rothko that he likes his painting, Rothko snaps:

“Of course you like it  – how can you not like it?  Everyone likes everything nowadays.  They like the television and the phonograph and the soda pop and the shampoo and the Cracker Jack.  Everything becomes everything else and it’s all nice and pretty and likable.  Everything is fun in the sun!  Where’s the discernment?  Where’s the arbitration that separates what I like from what I respect, what I deem worthy?”

This speech could just as easily be made about today’s Facebook-like-ing world. As Jonathan Franzen wrote in a beautiful article for the New York Times last May, “liking is for cowards, go for what hurts.”

And near the end of the play, Ken goes for what hurts: Rothko’s quiet hypocrisy in creating work for the Four Seasons. If Rothko wants his work to move people, why is he allowing it be used as decoration at an expensive restaurant? To quote Kim Collier in the director’s note, the question of whether Rothko’s painting has become a “bourgeois exercise… an elitist experiment” is significant, and resonates on many levels. When I attended, the audience was older, white and upper-class. In this way, Red subtly questions its own project: is the play itself elitist? Are we sitting in the Four Seasons of theatres? The Bluma Appel is a beautiful space – but the answer is no – both for Rothko and CanStage. In the end, Rothko refuses the commission and keeps the paintings, and despite the crowd, Canadian Stage is making great efforts to find new audiences: I paid only $12.50 for my ticket (through the theatre’s C-Stage program, available to anyone under 30).

Red is as much about Rothko’s process as it is about the context of his work, his audience. While not everyone will ‘like’ this production, that is beside the point. The work is significant, and deserves our respect.

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