They say that beauty is the eye of the beholder, but the same could be said about art. For some it can be an emotional experience. For some it is an intellectual exercise. Others simply don’t get what all the fuss is about. The Aenigma Theatre production of John Logan’s Red, a play about art, falls more firmly on the emotional side of the equation.
In 1958, artist Mark Rothko received a commission to paint a series of murals for the newly opened Four Seasons restaurant in New York. It is against this backdrop that playwright John Logan has taken the real-life abstract-expressionist painter and thrown him inside his studio with a fictional assistant. In its seemingly brief 90 minutes Red explores the relationship between master and apprentice, and that of art and artist.
While Red relies heavily on its actors, it is difficult to ignore the choice of the tiny Little Mountain Gallery for this production. Red seems almost made for this venue; a genuine bohemian art studio that takes little imagination to see someone like Rothko using it in real-life. Intimate and raw, it is about as perfect a setting for a sometimes visceral discussion about art. Chengyan Boon emphasizes the space with spare lighting. A few bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling and the contrasting starkness of the house lights add both a realistic feel and underscores Rothko’s assertion that his paintings cannot truly come alive in natural light.
The intimacy of the venue though does have one pitfall, as it puts us so close to the action that we are at times overwhelmed by the actors. Under the direction of Tanya Mathivanan, this is particularly true with David J Bodor’s portrayal of Rothko. With his pursed lips, awkward movements, hands on hips, and slight Jewish accent, this is a character actor’s wet dream. But it also comes with risk of becoming a caricature and it was difficult to see beyond Bodor’s affected portrayal in the play’s first thirty minutes. Fortunately a turning point came with first real exchange about the nature of art between Rothko and his fictional apprentice. At that point, Bodor’s performance all but disappeared and the remaining sixty minutes settled nicely. A testament to Bodor’s ultimate grasp on Rothko, and the emotional depth that is at the centre of this production, the final scene, which could easily be mawkish, comes across as genuine.
As the younger apprentice, Patrick Dodd provides a youthful enthusiasm that challenges Rothko at almost every turn. There is a nice progression from his initial hesitancy to coming into his own as the next generation of artist. Dodd makes the most of his vulnerable moments when they become personal, and even as the playwright refuses to go deeper in that exploration, it is honest.
In 2012, I saw a Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company production of Red that I described as “a near perfect balance of the intellectual and emotional”. With a bigger emphasis on the emotional in this current production, I left the Little Mountain Gallery with tears in my eyes. In that moment, feeling was much more important than thinking.
Red by John Logan. Directed by Tanya Mathivanan. An Aenigma Theatre production. On stage at Little Mountain Gallery (195 East 26th Ave, Vancouver) until July 16. Tickets are available online at Brown Paper Tickets.