Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: (Toronto) Red

Jim Mezon (photo credit: Bruce Zinger)
Rothko’s Rage...
...Charlebois's dilemma
by Émilie Charlebois

Notwithstanding my own impressions of Kim Collier’s production of “Red” I think the audience’s reaction deserves to be noted and taken into account. Although the comedy wasn’t to my taste, laughs were heard throughout, and while I’m not a fan, it was given a standing ovation. So take what you may from what follows.

Can you guess which color this makes him see?

Beginning in 1958 and spanning two years, “Red” tells the story of Mark Rothko  (Jim Mezon) in a time of crisis as his relationship with his new assistant Ken (David Coomber) pushes him to question his artistic integrity during his work on a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant. If coming to grips with the potential commodification of his “living” paintings wasn’t hard enough, in comes Pop Art, rubbing commodity fetishism and commercial art right in Rothko’s face.  Can you guess which color this makes him see? Forgive the horrible pun, but red as a colour and a source of thought and feeling is discussed throughout John Logan’s piece as it is spread across the canvases in Rothko’s studio. Even its pigments are thrown across the floor by Rothko in a fit of rage, after Ken suggests the painting we are never meant to see needs more… red.

The playwright John Logan has successfully created an image of the artist-as-genius and almighty creator, a man who is incredibly self absorbed by his work and his place within art history amongst the greats, like Michelangelo and Rembrandt. Ugh, the never-ending diatribes on what painting is, what it can and cannot be and of course, who is worthy enough to behold His own work or even be so lucky as to hear Him speak. No surprise, the man is riddled with insecurities and is vulnerable, just as he claims his paintings to be: they will be judged, uprooted and decontextualized and manipulated beyond Rothko’s obsessive control. While Ken reached his breaking point only at the very end of the play, I wanted to tell Rothko to “sheee-aat-up!” within minutes of the curtain rising.

There was no real weight to Mezon-as-Rothko’s rage.

In "Red" Mark Rothko is quite the pretentious d-bag and Mezon conveys this perfectly. However, while the play is obviously meant to be emotionally charged and bounding with tension, I felt none of it.  Sure, there’s a lot of yelling, but there’s more to anger than aggressive shouting. There was no real weight to Mezon-as-Rothko’s rage. Throughout most of the performance I sensed the script being delivered rather than characters being brought forth with emotion. Not that either Mezon or Coomber seem to lack any talent or the ability to accomplish such a task, but my guess is that they were both directed into archetypes of tyrannical master and questioning apprentice by Kim Collier. Rothko is evidently an ornery man who is incapable of being content, but having him persistently yell and be constantly irate made the climactic moments less discernable and reduced them to simple changes in volume. The problem with archetypes is that they stand alone, and there was therefore little chemistry that developed between Mezon and Coomber’s characters.

On a visual level, “Red” is stunning. Both the frames onstage and the act performed live by the artist and his assistant were something to behold and succeeded at conveying Rothko’s concept of paintings as living and breathing. The set design and visual effects projected on to the walls that closed in on every scene, were beautiful and set the historical tone of the piece. The New York studio put together by David Boechler and Hamilton Scenic Specialty Inc. truly gave a sense of the open space that abstract expressionist artists were known to tirelessly work in, completely absorbed by art. The set appeared to be huge for only two people to occupy, but it was filled to the brim with Rothko’s ego and artistic discontents.

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