David Coomber

How does one see the colour red? Is it the colour of love, of roses, or of blood and murder? Life, death, and artistic struggle form many of the themes in Red, currently playing at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre. This 90 minute, one act play depicts artist Mark Rothko’s life in his atelier, as he takes on an assistant (Ken, played brilliantly by David Coomber), and paints a $35,000 commission for extravagant Four Seasons Restaurant inside New York’s Seagram Building. Considered one of the most expensive commissions in the history of modern art, this famous series of Rothko panels is primed and worked on during the course of the play. As Rothko states his terms of employment (“I am not your rabbi, your father, your friend, your teacher,…”), Ken willingly accepts and immediately gets to work with the Abstract Expressionist hero.

Jim Mezon

Jim Mezon plays Mark Rothko, a demanding, outspoken, and eccentric Russian artist who spills his emotions onto Ken, who at first is afraid of encountering Rothko during any given moment of the day, not knowing what will spew from his mouth. It’s a demanding role, one in which Mezon’s voice and stature are well suited to play.

Over time however, Ken learns to anticipate Rothko’s emotional roller coaster, and opens up to him about how he too sees red, through the death of his parents. He also begins to state his own opinion about the current art scene, being taken over by the easily consumable Warhols and Lichtensteins of modern times. The play gets really interesting once this begins to happen.

The stage forms a draped cube at the start, opening and closing to reveal new scenes. The studio is simply lit with old style art lamps, and contains a record player, old furnishings of the time period, as well as a mishmash of paint, canvas, and supplies. At times the stage is lit white, other times it morphs into red. The draped cube also forms a great medium for a video containing colourful Warhols and Lichtensteins between one particular set change.

David Coomber, Jim Mezon

“It’s a risky act to let a painting go out into the world.” This line shows Rothko’s vulnerability as human being, and although he comes off as an arrogant, ego-driven artist, there’s more at work inside his head. It’s around this time in the play that the first paint-infused meltdown occurs.

Many lessons are learned here, but over time, we find that it’s the assistant that teaches the master. In the end, Rothko releases Ken into the outside world, as he finally realizes the value of the next generation of creatives. And more importantly, Rothko ultimately rejects the Four Seasons as a suitable venue to hold his collection – a tribute to both his temperament and (perhaps encouraged by Ken’s viewpoint, his artistic morals).

Red is written by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and playwright John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator) and directed by Electric Company Theatre’s Artistic associate director Kim Collier (Studies in Motion, All the Way Home).

Red plays through February 2 at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre. Visit the website for ticket and showtime information.

Photos courtesy of Bruce Zinger.

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