Seeing Red: a play about American painter Mark Rothko at the Vancouver Playhouse

Jim Mezon as painter Mark Rothko in the Vancouver Playhouse production of Red

“What do you see?” demands Rothko. “And how does it make you feel?”

These are the two questions that keep pulsing through John Logan’s play about Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko and his assistant. They are the questions that Rothko’s paintings themselves seem to ask, not only about paintings, but also about the world.

What do you see? And how does it make you feel?

I have to admit I went to see Red last night out of a kind of nostalgia for a time when America’s painters were most vital and important (as well as neurotic and self-absorbed and all the rest). And yet that was my fear—that I’d be seeing a period piece.

Me of little faith. 

This is Rothko, after all, who stands before us and rails against everything we still cling to—real estate, money, appearance above all—everything bright and shiny—leisure and anything else that indicates status.

And then there’s the problem of a play about a painter in his studio—not exactly action-packed. Pollack, maybe, but these Color Field painters? Rothko himself says, “most of painting is thinking. 10% is putting paint on canvas; the rest is waiting.”

Thanks to Jim Mezon as Rothko and David Coomber as Ken, his assistant, and Kim Collier’s direction, the waiting is charged with tension. And words can’t describe the exuberance with which painter and assistant prime a canvas. Seriously. The play itself is every bit as vital and unsettling to us today as Rothko and his crowd were to New York in the 1950s.

More than once, Rothko decries the “nice-ness” and glib complacency of American life at mid-century, when everything was “fine, just fine.”

“We are not fine,” he shouts. “We are anything but fine.”

When the play opens, we find Rothko caught in a number of absurd contradictions. He is a rebel and an outsider who all of a sudden has a commission to paint murals for New York’s newest and trendiest restaurant. He tells his new assistant that he is not his rabbi or teacher or therapist, and then proceeds to act like all three. At the top of his game, he is most vulnerable.

He is getting old, by art world standards, and young Turks like Frank Stella and Andy Warhol are on the ascendancy. But there is something about the sparring between master and assistant, the attack and counter attack, the philosophical questions raised, that suggest our own most troubling dilemmas and remind us of the courage it takes to remain honestly engaged with them.

Red can be seen at the Vancouver Playhouse through February 4. For more information, visit: http://vancouverplayhouse.com/current-season/2011/red.php

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