“What do you see?” Portrait of the artist as a waning star in Red, a Fringe review

Michael Peng and Braden Butler in Red. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Red (Stage 5, King Edward Elementary School)

At the outset of Red, a man stares out at us from the stage with such fierce unblinking intensity you might have to look away before his eyes drill a hole in you.

It’s the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. And, as Leigh Rivenbark’s wonderfully acted Wishbone Theatre production of Red begins, Michael Peng as Rothko is gazing at one of his paintings in such an active, penetrating, visceral way you suspect it might actually blister the colours right off the invisible canvas.

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“What do you see?” Rothko demands from his newly hired assistant Ken (Braden Butler), a young up-and-comer painter. That question is crucial to Rothko’s artist’s credo, his world view, his soci0-cultural engagement vis-a-vis his “audience.” Poor Ken. As you suspect from the start, he’s in tough no matter what he answers — and “red?” is definitely not going to get a gold star from the master, who’s dogmatic, confrontational, tyrannical, and blessed with a formidable gift of the gab. 

We’re where the sun don’t shine— in Rothko’s sealed New York studio in the late ‘50s. He’s working on a series of commissioned murals for the new restaurant in the Four Seasons. And he has lots to say, none of it good, about the kind of rich insensible philistines who are his clientele.   

As a theatrical prospect, Red could have been like watching paint dry, literally. But John Logan’s Tony Award-winning 2010 two-hander feels very active and alive. For one thing, there’s the excitement of the performances. Peng has never been better than here, as the bitter, mercurial, competitive, and witty artist who sense that his status as a titan in the art world is being supplanted by a new generation of artists. Newcomer Butler as the assistant is excellent, chronicling in a compelling way the arc by which the young man, at first cowed and humble, seems gradually to be energized and empowered as a spokesman for the “new.”

Rothko’s aphorisms, which have surprise stingers, are vigorous and enlivening — “Nature doesn’t work for me; the light’s no good.” His sense of humour has a signature Jewish sense of anti-climax. “We’re a smiling nation living under the tyranny of ‘fine’.” But he doesn’t just stand there yakking with Ken. The pair are actually, convincingly, at work in the authentically spattered, crammed studio space Daniel Van Heyst.

A canvas gets stretched on a frame; the primer gets cooked. And then, in an exhilarating moment (accompanied by triumphant orchestral music), the primer gets hurled at the red-hued canvas. And Rothko readies his brush, playing with the bristles, like Federer with his racket or Horowitz warming up for the Hammerklavier sonata. “There’s tragedy in every stroke,” he says. 

It’s a fast, muscular, stimulating 90 minutes in the theatre. And what better place than the Fringe to ask “what do you see?”. After all, a play that explores the relationship between art, artists, and audiences seems made for a festival like this one.

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