Abstract Express Yourself in Red
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Abstract Express Yourself in Red

John Logan's Tony Award-winning play about Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko gets its Canadian premiere.

Jim Mezon as Mark Rothko, seeing red. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street East)
November 19–December 17
Monday–Saturday 8:00 p.m.; Wednesdays 1:30 p.m.; Sundays 2:00 p.m.

So, here’s a little art criticism for you. Red‘s director Kim Collier (along with designer David Boechler) have placed Mark Rothko, his beleaguered assistant, and a bunch of very big red canvases in a big box—a womb, perhaps—wherein Rothko’s oil-based “children” gestate and develop before being born. And instead of a curtain, we get sliding panels that sometimes close entirely, denying us access; sometimes coyly dilate, allowing us a peek at Rothko smoking a cigarette; sometimes spread all the way open, allowing us to penetrate the artist’s sanctum.

Do you get the yonic allusion? It’s interesting to see a touch of the feminine at play in a work that is so utterly masculine. It’s about paintings, not football, but at some points listening to two men expound their theories on art—particularly if it’s their own art, particularly if it’s about how their own art has changed the world—is about the dudeliest thing imaginable. There are no obelisks or swords or bananas in Red, but it’s an absolutely phallic piece of theatre. And that’s what makes it a bit of a drag to watch.

Back to that in a minute. First, let’s talk about the critical discourse going on about this production right now. Richard Ouzounian’s review in the Star was pretty scathing. Ouzounian wrote that he loves John Logan’s script but hates Kim Collier’s production, blaming what he perceives as the play’s shortcomings on Canadian Stage Artistic Director Matthew Jocelyn and “a regime that seems to feel that being different is the answer to everything.” Over at the Globe, Kelly Nestruck struck back with a piece defending the Canadian Stage and Matthew Jocelyn’s programming risks. For the record, we’re with Nestruck. The Canadian Stage Company languished for quite a while in a period of decidedly unrisky programming that frankly resulted in some pretty dull theatre. We’re willing to accept a few missteps if it means we get to see things like Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God in Another Africa, or Robert LePage’s sublime The Andersen Project. We’re also not convinced that the problem with Red has anything to do with Kim Collier’s production. It’s John Logan’s script.

This is a slightly controversial thing to say. After all, the 2010 Broadway production did win the Tony Award for Best Play. But a lot of the hype about that production was centred on Alfred Molina’s performance in the lead role. And while Jim Mezon is truly terrific as the moody, tortured artist in the Canadian Stage production, he’s obviously not as famous as Alfred Molina, and perhaps its that lack of celebrity glamour that make the show’s flaws more obvious.

Because it’s honestly not the production. The design looks like a million bucks, and Kim Collier makes sure that everything that happens on stage remains active and visually interesting. As we said, Jim Mezon is terrific, and David Coomber as Rothko’s long-suffering assistant Ken does about all he can with a part that exists solely to provoke the artist’s next diatribe or proclamation. Sure, the mid-show Lichtenstein/Warhol video montage representing the arrival of Pop Art smacks of subscriber hand holding, but at least it’s some top-notch A/V. And frankly, Collier is just following Logan’s lead on this one. His script gives the audience zero credit in terms of ever having heard of art before or knowing anything about it whatsoever. We get lines like “Exit stage left, Rothko, Pop Art has destroyed Abstract Expressionism.” This is dialogue? What’s missing in Red is a sense of its characters having any kind of inner life. As it stands, they become mouthpieces for different artistic manifestos and the result is something like an undergraduate fine art history textbook talking to itself.

Alfred Molina probably made a fabulous meal of Red‘s macho grandstanding. And perhaps he was good enough to make you ignore the fact that nothing really happens in the play. There are moments when the Canadian Stage production almost achieves this, which is why we’ve given it a three-star review. It’s a great production of a mediocre piece. But let the blame fall where it belongs, bring Kim Collier’s Siminovitch Prize-winning direction back to the Canadian Stage, and for goodness’ sake, give her a smarter script to work with. It will probably knock our socks off.