Smart art authenticity

Red (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

September 17 – 26

What is red? The answer is multifaceted, audience members discover as the characters of John Logan’s play of the same name debate through a list of the colour’s binary opposition associations – from lipstick to lava and Santa to Satan. The conversation is typical of those between the two-hander’s characters, abstract expressionist American painter Mark Rothko (Francis McMahon), the last artist left of his peers, and his young assistant, recent art school graduate Ken (Richard Lund).

You don’t need to know about Rothko to recognise his type almost immediately as he bombasts his new assistant as to the nature of his daily duties, helping to stretch the canvases, mix the paints, clean the brushes and apply the ground colour…. not painting. Cantankerous and prone to titanic self-absorption, the brash artist projects a paranoid and dogmatic indifference to the world and lack of awareness of others, including Ken, (who he never actually addresses by name), as he monologues about the patient process of art-making and the temporal nature of his painting compared to traditional representational artworks.

While John Logan’s Tony Award winning play is taut in its pacing, it is very much a ‘talky’ work, full of scholarly dialogue and ideas for the audience to wade through. It doesn’t shy away from its intelligence in contemplation about what art is and how it is made, including references to Nietzsche, Sophocles, Schopenhauer, Shakespeare, Byron, Matisse and Van Gogh, just to name a few.

Just as Rothko’s paintings are about the tension between their blocks of colour, so the play itself is about contrasting artistic viewpoints. Drama builds as Ken boldly questions his employer’s theories of colour and, by association, his integrity in accepting a lucrative commission to paint a coordinated series of paintings for the interior of the upmarket Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue.

The setting is the pre-eminent painter’s late 1950s New York studio and while the era is never made too apparent, beyond use of a black rotary telephones, Set/Costume Designer Bill Haycock’s transformation of the small theatre space into an artist’s studio complete with an imposing set of replica canvasses, is impressive. And lighting (consultant David Walters), works well to create nooks and crannies within the set. Indeed, attention to detail is evident throughout and immediately apparent from introduction of characters attired in paint speckled clothing and shoes.

The relationship between the two characters is what endures at the core of the work’s drama. To Rothko, artistry is a job more than a calling; from his perspective Ken is never more than an employee and Jackson Pollock was but a tragic bohemian. Still, under Jesse Richardson’s direction, the duo works well together, which we best see in an exhilarating sequence in which prime a blank canvas with a base layer, enthusiastically splashing on the colour to the sounds of a cresendoing classic music score.

Not a lot happens in “Red”; its drama is not plot-drive but rather comes from its character studies, so it is appropriate that the McMahon and Lund give such powerful performances. As the bullish Rothko, McMahon presents a convincing, unrelenting portrait of the tormented visionary artist, commanding attention with grandiose movements and exclamation. Lund, meanwhile, engages the audience in sincere articulation of Ken’s nuanced later less-enigmatic arguments, for example, of the conflicts of previous art movements. His layered but still-contained performance elevates the character of Ken to being more than just Rothko’s foil when he shares a gripping revelation of the details of an event from his past.

The art of quality theatre does not come easy, which makes the experience of Ad Asta’s “Red” all the more rewarding. While the play is often intense, there are some lighter comic moments to ease the dramatic tension, such as when the moody American painter explains why he doesn’t ever paint outdoors.

This is excellent theatre presented with an authenticity that makes it feel like a voyeuristic glimpse into Rothko’s life at a point in time that sees him fearing that one day ‘the black will swallow the red’ in foreshadow of the circumstances of his death just over a decade later. And just as tension of the expressive blocks of colour contrasts of Rothko’s trademark large, floating rectangles seem to engulf the spectator, so too are audience members easily absorbed into his “Red” story through its enduring intimations on mortality and the philosophical truths of human drama.

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