A smartly-written debate on the nature of art, and the role of the audience in its interpretation, results between the cantankerous Rothko and his put-upon assistant.
—Joff Schmidt, reviewer
"What do you see?"
These are not just the first words of John Logan's 2009 Tony-winning
play Red, but also its central question - what do any of us see when we
engage with a piece of art?
In asking this question, Red - which opens the Royal Manitoba Theatre
Centre Warehouse season - becomes a piece of meta-art itself,
challenging its audience to ask themselves what they see in the
theatrical production. I can, of course, only speak for myself - but can
say that I saw an intriguing, but not consistently engaging, piece of
Logan (also an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, best know for films like
Gladiator and the recently-released Skyfall) picks a fascinating
real-world scenario for his exploration of art, focusing on two years in
the life of the famed abstract painter Mark Rothko (played here by
Rothko was commissioned in 1958 to paint a series of murals for the new
Four Seasons restaurant in New York. The commission - with a sizable
paycheque - put Rothko's emphasis on the importance of true intellectual
engagement with art at odds with its commercialization.
Jameson Matthew Parker (left) and Oliver Becker in "Red" (David Cooper)
In this basic story, Logan's script remains true to life. But he adds a
fictional secondary character, Rothko's assistant Ken (Jameson Matthew
Parker) as a foil to Rothko. A smartly-written debate on the nature of
art, and the role of the audience in its interpretation, results between
the cantankerous Rothko and his put-upon assistant.
Some of this works beautifully, particularly in the second act, when Ken
begins to develop the fortitude to challenge Rothko and his towering
ego. For much of the first act, though, Ken is a too uni-dimensional
character, eclipsed onstage by the size and force of Rothko's
Becker takes on the role with gusto, perfectly capturing the unwavering
intensity of Rothko as he stares intently at his art, wrestling with the
question, "What do you see?" However, director Michael Shamata too
often relies on having Becker shout Rothko's lines to convey intensity,
and it becomes tiresome at points - especially when there's far more
power in his quieter moments.
Becker's standout scene is an almost-whispered monologue that follows
Rothko's visit to the Four Seasons, where he sees the intended home of
his paintings among the "chattering of monkeys and barking of hyenas."
Befitting of a play about art, Shamata and his design team (set designer
Peter Hartwell and lighting designer Scott Henderson) create striking
visual images, washing the stage in reds and blacks and framing it with
reproductions (by scenic artist Carole Klemm) of Rothko's work, which
stare back at us throughout, asking - "what do you see?"
And while this isn't the definitive production of Logan's play, it's a
question that will linger with its audience after the lights go up.
Red runs at the MTC Warehouse through November 17.