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A debate over the role of art in society
Article mis en ligne le jeudi 29 novembre 2012

Photo: Sarah Geledi

Up-and-coming actor Jesse Dwyre plays Rothko’s assistant. The entire Segal Centre stage has been transformed into the artist’s New York City studio.

For the Montreal premiere RED, a drama about iconic painter Mark Rothko, the stage at the Segal Centre is transformed into the abstract expressionist artist’s New York studio, complete with a large-scale canvas that is painted before our eyes.

The intense two-person play, on stage until Dec. 16, is by playwright and screenwriter John Logan, the man behind such films as Skyfall and Gladiator.

It’s a much more scaled-down production than the Segal’s previous production, the Broadway musical. “I think it makes a nice contrast,” said artistic producer Paul Flicker. “Guys and Dolls was big and glitzy and colourful. For our second play, we have something a little more intimate, a little more serious, but with some incredible acting.”

Set in 1958, at the peak of Rothko’s fame, RED focuses on the artist as he creates a set of murals for the new Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City’s Seagram Building, the biggest commission in the history of modern art. After hiring a young assistant, Rothko begins to question his role as an artist, fearing that his work will be reduced to being purely decorative. As the play progresses we are presented with a heated debate between protégé and mentor over the role of art in society.

Set and costume designer Eo Sharp recreated an exact replica of Rothko’s studio at 222 Bowery, hung with reproductions of the infamous murals he’s working on. It turns out that the dimensions of the Segal stage are precisely the same as Rothko’s actual studio. That piece of information was the real catalyst for inspiring Henry to bring this vivid play to the Segal, right in the heart of Côte-des-Neiges-NDG.

“I was very interested in having the actual artist’s studio in front of us, so that we could see how they did it: how you mix paint, how you build a frame, how you stretch a canvas,” said the director. “On top of that, it’s about the relationship between Rothko and his assistant, which is alternately loving and outraged.”

Interestingly, there is another linking element between Rothko and the Segal Centre. The Seagram murals at the heart of the play were commissioned by the Canadian liquor company Seagram, then owned by Montreal businessman and philanthropist Samuel Bronfman. Architect Phyllis Lambert, Bronfman’s daughter, helped design the Segal Centre building (then the Saidye Bronfman Centre, named after her mother). “And now the murals come to the Segal Centre, or at least the paintings of the murals,” said the theatre’s artistic producer.

The Segal’s production of RED stars award-winning Canadian actor Randy Hughson as the eccentric and enigmatic Rothko, while newcomer Jesse Dwyre takes on the role of the artist’s young protégé.

Mark Rothko was a pioneer in the abstract expressionist movement, along with artists like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. The infamous paintings at the centre of the play now hang in London’s prestigious Tate Modern Museum.

The critically acclaimed play premiered in London back in 2009 with Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as Ken, the young assistant. It was moved to New York the following year, where it was hailed as one of the most exciting new works to hit Broadway in years.

RED plays now through Dec. 16 at the Segal Centre.

[ Sarah Geledi ]

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