Seeing Red

Ben Sanders & Randy Hughson, photo by Mark Bergin

Ben Sanders & Randy Hughson, photo by Mark Bergin

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…

9 comments

  1. A great review, worthy of a great production. I’d only add that, having already seen the production by Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel in Toronto, I found that this production was more powerful, in part because the intimacy of the Baby Grand puts you in such close contact with a character, Rothko, who at times seems dangerously feral.

    1. Thanks, Craig…At one point during the performance, I happened to glance down and was completely mesmerized by the paint splatter on Rothko’s shoe, less than a foot away from my own…It was then the sensation of his spit landing lightly on the back of my hand that brought me back..Incredible…

  2. A pleasure to read. I like that good listening is lauded, and that Randy’s skillful ability to pull back at times so that the whole performance is not delivered at a fever pitch is highlighted.

  3. Another wonderfully attentive review, Will. I too found the set stunningly beautiful and moving, like the cave paintings at Lascaux. But I also found it dull and forgettable when Rothko turned up the house lights, to reveal how it might look in the sunlit Four Seasons Restaurant. I often didn’t understand Ben Sanders’ choices as Ken. He sometimes seemed more like a petulant teen than a driven young artist with a chance to learn from a great, though not his favourite, artist. When he describes the horrifying memory of red that he hopes to exorcise through art, it feels overacted and thus possibly not true. Early on and near the end he has two opportunities to say that simple word “red,” in response to Rothko’s question: “What do you see?” His readings are almost identical and they seemed to me almost flippant, as if nothing of significance has happened. I don’t understand. I agree that the moments when he and the director let Ken be angry and serious were indeed powerful. Randy’s performance was as original and riveting as it was in Equus, Stompin’ Tom, and Godot, I thank everyone involved.

    1. One of my favourite developments in the early days of this blog, Gord, is your ongoing contribution…I already eagerly await your response each time that I post…In addition to some of the roles you have already mentioned, I also consider myself fortunate to have caught Randy’s fascinating portrayal of Dressler in Morris Panych’s “The Dishwashers” at Tarragon…

  4. I saw Randy onstage in a production on Slavs at Tarragon when I was training at George Brown. I was sitting in the front row and right in the middle of this huge argument with another character onstage he turned out, looked me in the eye and winked. That moment was very important to my growth as an actor, the acknowledgement of the audience, accepting them, and including them in the experience. They are there and not to be denied. I have seen him in many productions since and have always been in awe of his talent and guts on stage.

    Thanks for you thoughtful review, Will. Looking forward to many more.

  5. I too enjoyed this production very much. Randy was very powerful in his role and I felt both invited yet unwanted in his world – perfect. I found Ben arched very well throughout the production, finding his sense of self and independence of thought and expression. The very things that Gord pointed out made his character all the more real to me.
    I loved the staging and the use of the Baby Grand as the black box space as it was originally intended.
    Thank you Theatre Kingston for such a beautiful piece of drama.

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