By Brent Schaus
Can a Hollywood screenwriter write for the stage, and provide the depth and complexity to which most theatre-goers are accustomed?
The Belfry Theatre’s season-opening production of Red answers these questions with a resounding, “Yes.” Playwright John Logan is an accomplished Hollywood screenwriter (Hugo, Rango and Ralph Fienne’s Coriolanus among his recent credits) who delivers a profound and moving script of intelligence and wit that director Michael Shamata brings to the stage with near-perfection.
Red immerses us in the crucible of Mark Rothko’s New York studio, ca. 1959. Rothko was a contemporary of Jackson Pollock and De Kooning, often grouped with the “abstract expressionists” (though he resisted the label). Commissioned to create a series of murals for the Seagram’s Building (think Season 1 of Mad Men), Rothko hires a young assistant, Ken. A play of ideas proceeds as Rothko pronounces his views on art vs. commerce, philosophy and aesthetics. Ken grows more confident as he provokes and challenges Rothko, and it is this connection between the young, orphaned artist and a reluctant mentor that humanizes the story.
Oliver Becker is perfectly cast as Mark Rothko. He stalks the stage like a pugilistic monk with a voice seasoned by cigarettes and liquor. Becker’s strong voice and virile physical presence anchor the piece and fill the stage. It is a towering performance for a towering persona, as rich and nuanced as a Rothko canvas.
Jameson Matthew Parker, originally from Shawnigan Lake, is also wonderfully cast. His Ken is quick-moving and coltish, open with his confusion and hurt as he withstands Rothko’s frequent abuse. In some ways, Ken’s character arc is more difficult, and Parker navigates it well. One scene, however, seemed just beyond Parker’s reach during the performance I attended. It is potentially an emotionally exhausting one, though, and I have confidence he’ll unleash a bit of Dionysian hell in future performances.
Director Shamata allows for moments on stage when nothing is said, but much is accomplished in the bustle of a busy artist’s studio. One glorious set-piece occurs at the mid-point of the play. Ken prepares a canvas with a staple gun, while Rothko grinds red pigment with a mortar and pestle. The two achieve a symbiotic rhythm. Then, once the canvas and paint are ready, the two of them — the orphaned assistant and the troubled genius — paint the first layer of the canvas together. Members of the crowd erupted into spontaneous applause, during and after. A deeply touching moment.
I was reluctant to leave Rothko’s studio, as the set, costume, lighting and sound design were so appealing. Often, when watching a period piece on stage or screen, the action feels at a remove: the past is happening “over there.” My breath was taken away, a bit, as I began to feel as if 1959 were “now,” and invoked before me. Rothko clomps around in desert boots, while Mark trips around in a pair of Chuckies. A record player emits Mozart or Chet Baker on vinyl. Lighting was of near-religious importance to Rothko, and that is reflected in the chapel-like stage lighting. Mysteries appear willingly when a design team creates such an atmosphere.
The action after the intermission may feel anemic or bloodless, to some, but I believe this is intentional. Traditional play structure — a la Aristotle — is to have one climax at the end of the play. Modern playwrights often manipulate that traditional structure. In the case of Red, Logan appears to place the climax during the preparation and painting of the canvas, well before the intermission. This leaves a bit of a void, a kind of negative space, echoing Rothko’s words: “We didn’t have parents. We didn’t have mentors. We were alone…” Here, Logan creates a brilliant twist to traditional dramatic structure, making the abrupt and sad ending all the more poignant.
The Belfry, once again, provides theatre-lovers with a high-calibre, profound and entertaining evening. M
Red runs until Oct. 14 at the Belfry Theatre.
Tickets at belfry.bc.ca or by phone at 250-385-6815