Visceral and Vivid: Magnus Theatre Presents Red

Story by Kyle Poluyko, photos by Barry Wojciechowski 

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Mark Weatherley as Mark Rothko (left), Jordan Campbell as Ken (right)IMG_0182 IMG_0015

Red is a Tony Award-winning play by John Logan about abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko. From youth, the fervent and passionately expressive Rothko drew from influences of German expressionists, ancient mythology and ultimately the writings of Nietzsche. At the height of his fame in 1958, and with Ken, a young, ambitious and inquisitive assistant at his side to whom he espouses his philosophies, Rothko quickly finds himself and his ideology challenged. 

Mark Weatherley portrays Rothko, smoking in his studio and lost in the canvases of various and vibrant shades of red, as deep and striking as his dogma. The canvases, some hanging high above or leaning on the floor, overlapping at rest across each other, the ones obscured giving hints of vivid coloration. Weatherley’s Rothko is initially introduced with a swagger, presenting somewhat of a pompous attitude – an artist one struggles to understand. 

Weatherley is commanding yet carries more the air of businessman rather than an artist. He spouts tenets, theories and lists of ideas, yet seems disinterested and uninspired by them. Though Weatherley knows well the intricacy of his dialogue, moments of quick humour and profound assertion hang in the air above the audience’s heads without hitting the mark. Still, Weatherley’s Rothko is assertive and impressive, his wisdom serving as a protracted lecture—an education—for his young assistant. 

Ken, the assistant, played by Jordan Campbell, presents as an artist himself who doesn’t necessarily need this teaching but rather guidance. Eager and ambitious, Ken has thoughts and ideas of his own, perhaps some of greater strength, resonance and relevance than Rothko’s. By contrast to Rothko’s informed posture, Campbell’s burgeoning Ken delivers similes with persuasion and urgency. His perspectives are clearer and more thoughtful for he, too, has been weathered by pain. The story becomes Ken’s as he recalls the bloody murder of his parents. “The bed was stained with it… and then the walls.” 

As Ken, Campbell is energetic, engaged in a performance that could be wonderfully heightened by more enmeshed reaction by Weatherley. It is only when the two are locked in a challenge of perception and appreciation that Weatherley renders forth a skilful execution and tenders his dialogue superbly. Both men come to paint extraordinary visuals with words alone. Rothko, who fears the influence of a new generation of artistry—which Ken represents—finds safety in his art, his studio, and, in fact, in his mind. For this reason he dismisses Ken to go off, free to be his own artist. “Make something new,” he says. 

Together, director Mario Crudo, along with set designer Bruce Repei and lighting designer Kristin Watt subtly, yet elegantly, construct Rothko’s studio as a place where the dialogue is a rich as the painted canvases.

Magnus Theatre’s production of Red runs through March 29. For more information call 345-5552 or visit magnus.on.ca