Mel Aravena’s bold follow-up to his excellent rendition of Ariel Dorfman’s controversial Death and the Maiden is the John Logan Broadway success Red. Based on the life of Mark Rothko, the play elegantly brings to the foreground the control and abandon prevalent in art, the hypocrisy of the medium as a profession, and the transition from the old guard to the new. The excellently crafted script is elevated to new heights through Aravena’s deft hand, and a remarkable performance by Rod McTaggart as Rothko.
It’s 1958, and Mark Rothko (McTaggart) has just landed the greatest commission in the history of modern art: a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan. An unprecedented achievement, Rothko is content to brandish his hefty paycheck with pride. Over the course of two years, his assistant, Ken (Mischa Aravena), begins to see the cracks in his façade. As the times change, and the art world progresses, so, too, do Ken’s ideologies. Questioning Rothko’s artistic integrity, Ken brings to light the hypocrisy of his practice, and forces him to acknowledge his looming obsolescence.
The script is masterful. Delicately poignant dialogue centers the production on the transient nature of success, and its ambiguous definition within the artistic community. From the play’s first scene, we are meant to discuss the manner in which the sons of art murder their fathers. Speaking of his own success, and disparaging fellow artists Picasso and Pollock, Rothko adamantly lectures on this unavoidable transition. This theme serves as poetic bookmarks, addressing Rothko’s own place in art history, having become one of its fathers himself. As it becomes increasingly evident that his decline is looming, Rothko struggles to accept his place.
A cynical, arrogant, self-righteous man, Rothko borders on insufferable. Brilliant, to be sure, but hardly a man to hear you in a debate, or one to admit his shortcomings. McTaggart balances his many hues with remarkable ease and tact. He elevates the scripts’ wry wit and humour, and portrays Rothko’s somber suffering with poise. He’s captivating and engaging, allowing the audience to laugh while still the preserving script’s powerful emotion. Though his role in Death and the Maiden was a challenging one, here McTaggart has been given the room to run. He’s shown us what he can do, and his range is impressive.
Mischa Aravena as greenhorn assistant transformed, Ken, takes a bit of time to catch his stride. His lack of familiarity with the subject matter seeps through only the faintest cracks in his otherwise excellent performance. From first entering the studio in 1958, clumsy, bumbling and eager to please, he manages to pull off a well-timed comedic sense. As Ken begins to see the fallibility of his teacher, and truly learns by questioning Rothko’s authority, he grows progressively more confident in his accusations. Mischa’s performance, too, improves by leaps and bounds as he sinks his teeth into the role.
The set mimics that of the Broadway production – an empty studio space, paint litters the floor, with jars stacked on shelves, easels and stretched canvases lining the walls. It’s a simple set to the untrained eye, but keep those lids open for sneaky art history references that have been planted around the stage. The subtle Easter egg gems are pure gold for those in the know.
Mel Aravena has done a wonderful job with the two-man production. Though the script addresses challenging subject matter, such as the hypocrisy of art for financial gain, it maintains a striking wit and sense of humour. Through excellent direction, Red did not suffer the fate of missed laughs. It’s not uncommon to lose an audience if the severity of the subject matter overshadows the impact or significance of its subtler humour. Aravena deftly executed the production in such a way that its weighty themes never overshadowed its comedic elements.
Red has its fourth, and sold out, show tonight, Thursday, November 14, at 8:00pm at the Pearl Company in Hamilton. There are two more performances remaining, this Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm. Don’t miss this production. This is only the beginning of an impressive career in the theatre for Mel Aravena.