Since its very beginning as “Theatre Beyond” in 1991, Theatre Kingston has been known for bringing challenging pieces to local audiences – typically ambitious and risky productions that may not have mainstream appeal, but are meant to enrich as well as entertain their audiences. The current staging of John Logan’s “Red“, playing now in the Baby Grand Studio, is a perfect example of such a project, and is near-perfect in its execution.
“Red” is a vivid look into the life of famed artist Mark Rothko (circa 1958) as he undertakes the painting of a group of murals for The Four Seasons, an exclusive and expensive restaurant. In addition to grappling with his own demons and creative process, he must also contend with a young new assistant, who has his own ideas and aspirations. It is a play which explores the very essence of art: its creators, its creation, and its consumption. “Everyone likes everything nowadays”, laments Rothko in the opening scene. “Everything becomes everything else and it’s all nice and pretty and likeable. Everything is fun in the sun!” This play, however, is not. And as such, the playwright has crafted a brilliant ‘case in point’ – if, that is, all of the elements of the production are able to live up to the lofty expectations established by the script itself.
The production is marked with a discernable maturity under the masterful direction and vision of Charlotte Gowdy. She has clearly taken a confident ownership of the material, and inspired her actors and creative team to do the same. There is a palpable passion that fills the intimate space, yet it is tempered with both patience and discretion. From the moment when sound designer Mikael Tobias’ music unperceivably takes control of the room and the lights begin their slow fade, to that time when the first line is finally uttered, it is clear that the company has decided there is no need to rush. And there isn’t.
It would be all too easy to tackle a character of Rothko’s nature with an overwhelming zeal, but Randy Hughson demonstrates a calculated austerity in his performance. He is perfectly comfortable making his audience lean in to him and do some of the work, allowing himself to then choose very definite moments to either cut loose or completely withdraw at will. He appears to know exactly how far take his temperament to achieve maximum effect, but goes no further. To play at too high a level throughout would also be a disservice to his counterpart, effectively rendering the secondary character irrelevant. Instead, Hughson is very generous in sharing the stage with Ben Sanders as the youthful assistant, Ken. For me, a hallmark of excellent acting is the quality of one’s reaction, such that it gives credence to another’s performance, without detracting. Hughson and Sanders together capture this notion like none I have ever seen, and I often found myself listening intently to one, with my eyes glued to the other. Sanders, too, does an admirable job of picking his moments. He particularly makes the most of his defiant outbursts. I do, however, wish that he had better captured the trademark patience of this production in the recounting of his own horrific backstory. There is more of an opportunity there, I believe, to paint his own powerful portrait.
Set and Costume Designer Peter Hartwell has not only prepared a stunning canvas in his re-creation of Rothko’s studio within the Baby Grand, but in conjunction with Michelle Ramsay’s remarkable lighting, it becomes a dynamic part of the production. Both elements serve the needs and themes of the play in complimentary fashion. The creative team also cooperate to handle the scene changes not as an interruption in the action, but as a pulsing integral part thereof. The actors are allowed to ease into each new scene. There are a few occasions, though, where the endings feel abrupt.
As splendidly staged as “Red” is, this is not an easy night out. By design, Gowdy has created an atmosphere of discomfort including hard wooden chairs and benches, dim lighting, and unnervingly close and real action. Rothko’s internal turmoil and dismay is effectively transferred to the audience. As per the main character’s own outlook, this play is meant to be experienced – not necessarily enjoyed. That said, Theatre Kingston’s “Red” is an experience not to be missed. Case in point. (5/5 Stars)
“Red”, by John Logan, is a Theatre Kingston production, directed by Charlotte Gowdy, featuring Randy Hughson and Ben Sanders. The play runs at the Baby Grand Studio Theatre, from Jan 30th to Feb 15th with an 7:30 pm curtain, with some matinee performances…Full cast and crew listing and further information can be found here…Tickets available at the Grand Theatre Box Office, online or by calling 613-530-2050…