To some, they are simply flat blocks of colour. To others, they are vivid, transcendent works of art that pulsate with life.
The abstract paintings of Mark Rothko are as divisive as they are essential –their open expansiveness asks the viewer to project their own emotions upon it. In TNB’s new production of the Tony Award-winning play RED, the stage itself is the canvas as Rothko’s ideals are laid bare in furious exchanges of dialogue and paint.
Written by John Logan, a playwright also known for his Hollywood screenplays such as Gladiator, The Aviator and Skyfall, the play centers around Rothko’s 1958 creation of a quartet of pieces for the upscale Manhattan restaurant, The Four Seasons.
The play stars local actors Stephen Tobias and Caleb Cosman as Rothko and his assistant Ken, respectively. The master and his idealistic young aide butt heads over the nature of art and creation, questioning whether Rothko can still claim artistic integrity while commissioned by the massive Seagram Company.
Director Caleb Marshall believes that the unique teacher-student dynamic is the heartbeat of the play.
“I think anyone who’s ever had a mentor that they surpassed or outgrew at some point will appreciate the relationship development of the show. It’s not really a traditional play in terms of protagonist and antagonist, it’s really the journey of a relationship and how that relationship changed and shifted over the two years of creating these paintings,” said Marshall.
To stage a show as lauded as RED, Marshall knew he would have to draw together the best talent in the province. A co-production between Theatre New Brunswick and the Saint John Theatre Company, Marshall hopes that the unique partnership will serve as a model to other theatre groups.
“I think it’s quite exciting to be in a new environment, creating in a new space, working with members of a new team,” he said.
“I firmly believe as the amount of art funding decreases in our country and the number of artists and companies increase, that collaboration and partnership is the future of [theatre].”
As would be expected from a play about Rothko, painting plays a large part in RED – for added realism, the actors will be painting live on stage. Having consulted with an artistic advisor as to the proper techniques that Rothko would have used, Tobias and Cosman will be hammering canvases and mixing pigments just like the experts.
“That was what most important to me – that they had a sense of confidence in what they were doing and could really commit to it,” explained Marshall.
“You always want theatre to seem spontaneous, but you also want it to be controlled – as you can imagine, painting is an unpredictable element. There’s a measure of excitement and energy that comes out of that because we never really know what’s going to happen.”
Regional theatre groups are constantly scouring the world to bring the great works to our province, and Marshall emphasized the parallels between the themes of RED and the real-life partnership that brought it to New Brunswick audiences.
“This is a play about the creative process, about the nature of creation and art, and we’re in a way shaking up and re-evaluating our own process. I don’t think you have to be any sort of art connoisseur to appreciate this work – anyone who’s ever created, or dreamed of creating, or had an imaginative spark, will be fascinated by this delving into the creative process.
RED will play at the Fredericton Playhouse Mar. 27 to 29 at 7:30 p.m., with a matinée performance on Mar. 29 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30 for adults and $10 for McCain student tickets.