If you know anything about art, you’ve most likely seen or heard of painter Mark Rothko’s work: rectangular hues of colour that seem to vibrate when viewed up close. Most notable is his use of different shades of red — “a rabbit’s nose, an albino’s eyes . . .” describes Ken, Jameson Parker’s character in Red. Written by John Logan and directed by Michael Shamata, Red dips into Rothko’s life during the peak of his career in the 1950s.
Set in New York City, the play begins with Rothko (played by Oliver Becker) standing in his studio, presumably studying a painting, when Ken, a young painter, comes in search of a job. Rothko has just been commissioned to paint a set of murals for the new Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York City for the largest sum of money offered to an artist at that time.
The first act establishes the not-so-professional relationship between Rothko and Ken, one consisting mainly of art, culture and philosophy lectures from Rothko. Quick dialogue peppered with abstractions may be hard at times for audiences to keep up with, but it gives interesting insights into not only the world of visual art, but all forms of art.
“When someone tells me my painting is beautiful, I want to vomit,” says Rothko in the second act, torn at the thought of his artworks becoming mere decorations in a restaurant. “I hope to ruin the appetites of all the people who eat there.”
Becker’s portrayal of Rothko is archetypal, yet seemingly accurate. Flipping instantaneously between spittle-flinging rage and subdued stoicism shows the actor’s great energy control.
Structurally, Red has several experimental nuances. Entire minutes of silence pass during which Rothko chain-smokes and puts records on the turntable while Ken assembles a large canvas with a staple gun. Brandishing paintbrushes, the two cover the canvas in a rich red to intense orchestral music, splattering themselves and the stage with paint. The disjointed lulls and peaks of energy seem to mirror the nature of Rothko’s work.
Parker’s performance as the eager-to-learn employee strikes a balance between intimidated protégé and hubristic artist, intent on challenging Rothko’s egotistical ravings. Most notable is Parker’s monologue about the murder of his parents, which he delivers in front of the freshly painted canvas.
Music, integrated flawlessly into each scene by sound designer Tobin Stokes, plays a thematic role throughout the play. Rothko, threatened and disgusted by a new generation of artists and viewers, only plays classical music. When he walks in on Ken listening to jazz, his temper flames and the music is changed at once.
Whether you are an art lover or not, Red is bound to entertain. Rothko did not intend for his art to be dazzling or whimsical, but timeless, personal and honest. Red seeks to capture this concept in theatrical form.
Red @ the Belfry Theatre
Until Oct. 14 (show times vary)
Student discount: 25 per cent (except for 8 p.m. shows on Fridays and Saturdays)