RED, the play, paints a powerful portrait of an eccentric genius

By Byron Toben on December 3, 2012

RED , the Tony award winning drama, is a powerful and absorbing theatrical experience.

Written by prolific John Logan (12 stage plays, 5 movies) and directed by National Theatre School grad Martha Henry ( Stratford and Shaw festival director and actor), this show is well served by actors Randy Hughson and Jesse Aaron Dwyre.

Mr Hughson portrays the eccentric painter Mark Rothko, an exemplar of the Abstract Expressionist school of painting. (although just as his contemporary ,writer Jack Kerouac hated being dubbed a “beatnik”, so Rothko disliked being categorized as an abstract expressionist). His routine of cigarette smoking and classical music  listening while staring at giant unfinished canvases before exploding into a frenzy of splashing colourful rectangles thereon  contrasts with the earnest helpfulness of the fictional assistant, Ken, played by Mr. Dwyre.

The moment in time in the play is especially relevant to Montreal audiences at the Segal (formerly Saidye Bronfman) theatre. Rothko had been hired by architect Phillip Johnson to decorate the deluxe restaurant ,The Four Seasons , in the new  Seagram building in Manhattan (Sam Bronfman had allowed his daughter Phyllis Lambert to choose  her former professor, Mies Van der Rohe to design the building in conjunction with Mr Johnson).

The play deals with the torment of the super erudite Rothko, who brusquely and dictatorially bullies Ken “You have a lot to learn, young man. Philosophy. Theology. Literature. Poetry. Drama. History. Archeology. Anthropology. Mythology. Music. These are your tools as much as brush and paint”. Underlying his unease is “selling out” by having his canvases as a backdrop to the rich 1 %, dining and gossiping instead of being in awe of his insights as in a church.

Spotted in the audience were Bella and Verona Sorenson, the widow and daughter of the late David Sorenson a teacher at Bishop`s, whose abstract expressionist paintings have been exhibited all over the world. They mentioned that Mr Sorenson had met Rothko and admired his works but was a mild mannered and pleasant gentleman compared to Mr Rothko.

Rothko`s works now bring upwards of $60 million dollars at auction, placing his post mortem earnings in a category with Van Gogh, who like Rothko, committed suicide. Alas, for tragic geniuses, death is, financially, a good career move.

RED continues at the Segal Centre until December 16. 514-739-7944 or



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