Seeing Red at the Grand

Great performances bring Tony-award winning play to life

Randy Hughson and Ben Sanders star in Red
Randy Hughson and Ben Sanders star in Red
Photo supplied by Mark Bergin

Red is many things, but it’s ultimately a story of generations locking horns.

The Grand Theatre has just debuted a production of John Logan’s Tony award-winning play about legendary abstract-expressionist Mark Rothko, and it’s unmissable.

In 1958, Rothko was commissioned to create a series of paintings to decorate New York City’s Park Ave. restaurant the Four Seasons.

Rothko worked on the paintings for almost two years before the collection, which would come to be known as “the Seagram murals” after the alcoholic beverage company who commissioned them.

The works, however, were eventually withheld from his contractors after Rothko suddenly deemed the restaurant unfit to house his work. Red is a fictionalized account of what led to that seemingly-sudden decision.

The play brings a fictional assistant, Ken, into the narrative. A whole generation behind the brilliant but ornery Rothko, Ken is berated and challenged and educated so intensely over his time under Rothko that eventually — as it must always be — the pupil rightfully challenges the teacher and everything he’s been taught.

Masterfully directed by Charlotte Gowdy, the drama simmers and boils when it should and the humour shines through admirably when it can.

The play only features two characters, and that’s all it needs.

Ben Sanders plays Ken as a perfect rube who believably grows through stages of awe, skepticism and finally exhaustion in the presence of his mentor. Randy Hughson barks and howls his way through the role of Rothko, successfully portraying him as the play calls for him to be portrayed: a man who is every bit as much a fervent slave to his vanity as he is to his passion.

Peter Hartwell’s set design suits the Baby Grand extremely well. As the entire play is set in Rothko’s studio, the entire room becomes the stage, with the lines between the action and the audience being finely drawn. This is not unusual for a space as compact as the Baby Grand, but it’s done exceptionally well here — including one very meta moment which would be a shame to spoil here.

This is an excellent play, but know going in that it’s essentially 90 minutes of two men arguing about art: what it can and should be, how it can and should feel, and why anyone would or should care about any of it.

If that sounds boring to you, then you probably haven’t even made it this far into the review. But the Grand Theatre’s production of Red proves how exhilarating something as simple as that can be.

Red will be playing at the Grand Theatre on Princess St. until Feb. 15.

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