From the moment the audience enters the Belfry Theatre, the atmosphere is both chaotic and ominous.
Huge canvasses swallow the stage walls, familiar deep red and black rectangles painted with remarkable similarity – at least to the untrained eye – the work of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.
Drops of paint litter the stage floor leading toward a plywood work table covered in brushes, stained rags and plastic buckets, giving the unmistakable, oil-soaked feel of an artist’s studio.
Set designer Peter Hartwell’s attention to detail is indicative of the quality of Red, the Belfry’s first offering of the fall season on the life of Rothko from playwright John Logan.
With huge screenplays like Gladiator, The Aviator and Hugo under his belt, it’s clear Logan has a gift for storytelling. He took home the 2010 Tony Award for best play for Red.
The opening scene reveals Rothko, played by the impressive Oliver Becker, lost in thought as he stares deeply into an imaginary half-finished creation.
His musings are cut short by the arrival of his new and overtly earnest assistant, Ken (played by Jameson Parker).
The entire play takes place in Rothko’s New York studio in 1958-59, at the height of the artist’s fame, when he was creating a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram Building.
In a scene that illustrates director Michael Shamata’s enthusiasm for authentic detail, Ken methodically staples a three-metre canvas to a wooden frame before he and Rothko smother it in crimson paint from top to bottom.
Sound designer and renowned local composer Tobin Stokes brings to life Rothko’s dependence on music to inspire the creative process.
The fascination comes from watching Rothko’s attempts to hold onto his revolutionary beliefs while embracing the reality of commercialism and fame.
The dialogue is rich, the actors engaging and not a moment is provided to allow the mind to wander from this satisfying performance.
Red runs until Oct. 14 at the Belfry Theatre and tickets range from $25 to $40. For more information, call 250-385-6815 or visit belfry.bc.ca/red.