BY SARAH BERMAN, VANCOUVER SUN
Kim Collier has a hectic few days ahead of her. When the Vancouver-based director wraps her latest production at the Queen Elizabeth on Saturday, she’ll kick off another performance at the Playhouse at the same time.
“I had to give my brain a shake to even think about Red,” Collier says. “This week coming is extraordinarily busy.”
Collier has already poured gallons of paint, sweat and tears into Red: John Logan’s play about abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko. The Tony award-winning script chronicles a tumultuous few days inside Rothko’s New York studio as the painter struggles with a famous commission.
Actor Jim Mezon brings Rothko into harsh, bellowing focus, while newcomer David Coomber plays his fictionalized studio assistant Ken. After a month-long run in Toronto, the two-hander will spend three weeks on the Vancouver Playhouse stage.
Some background: Rothko set the 1950s art world abuzz with his vast canvases of floating colour. At the time, middle-class incomes were on the rise and America was searching for a new postwar identity. For many, Rothko was it.
“Rothko came at this perfect moment in history,” Collier says. “There were endless discussions about the fact his work represented America and democracy and freedom.”
But with popularity came immense self-criticism, says Collier. Feeling both threatened and displaced by contemporaries like Jackson Pollock, Rothko fell into a deeply alienated state.
This is where the story Red begins, in 1958. At what seems like the height of his career, Rothko hires Ken to help complete a $35,000 series for the Four Seasons restaurant on Park Avenue. At the time, it was the largest commission in the history of modern art.
Tormented by his artistic principles and intellectually prodded by an idealistic assistant, Rothko ultimately rejects the commercial offer, although not without learning a few hard lessons from Ken, the subordinate he’s meant to teach.
Months before rehearsals began, Collier immersed herself in the theory and habits of her research subject.
“I looked up every reference to Nietzsche or the Seagram Building,” she says.
Along with her cast, Collier learned Rothko’s personal techniques for brush strokes, mixing paint and stretching canvas.
“I also had the special privilege of spending a few days in the Rothko room of the Tate Modern,” Collier says. “Those paintings are the subject matter at the heart of this play.”
The nine large panels of deep maroon and black stand as a bold visual metaphor for Rothko’s distressed mental state. Enveloped by reproductions of these pieces, Mezon and Coomber unravel the painter’s prickly character.
Much like the artist he portrays, Mezon has spent decades mastering his craft. A 35-year veteran of the Shaw Festival, he’s performed in more than 100 plays, yet it makes sense that Mezon shares a stage with wide-eyed Coomber. Fresh out of Ryerson University’s theatre school, he’s a fitting apprentice to Mezon’s mastery.
“It’s a complete mirror,” Collier says of the pair’s master-apprentice relationship. “We really celebrated that in the production.”
Collier herself had much to learn, too. Known for multimedia visual pieces, Collier says she pushed herself to focus on the script’s dialogue.
“It was really different to work with a single set, two actors, and not a lot of moving parts,” she says. “It’s been a challenge and a pleasure.”
Collier’s work with the Electric Company — a group she co-founded in 1996 — specializes in physical theatre and movement. Plays like Tear the Curtain and Studies in Motion show her commitment to innovation and spectacle.
While there are a few moments of AV in Red — cinematographer Brian Johnson offers an art history refresher via video projection — the production’s magnetism is rooted in subtlety.
“Red just allowed me a great deal of time to think about what is happening between those two characters,” Collier says.
It’s complex characters like Rothko that hold particular value for Collier. “In my career I’ve looked at some obsessive, intelligent and uncompromising individuals,” she says. Collier’s previous plays have explored the minds of Nikola Tesla and Eadweard Muybridge: eccentric figures in the worlds of engineering and photography, respectively.
“It’s a real pleasure to expand yourself each time you do this,” Collier says.
One might even say she has it down to an art.
Special to The Sun
Originally published January 11, 2012. Photo by Bruce Zinger.