Two famous artists are immortalised in theatre shows of entirely different styles, says ABC 720's cultural correspondent Victoria Laurie.
The pleasure of art and music is owed to its creators, and we owe much to famous 20th century US artists like Cole Porter and Mark Rothko. Both men are celebrated in plays staged in Perth, one a musical befitting Porter's songwriting legacy and the other a brilliant snapshot of visual artist Rothko's tortured life.
Porter's 'You've Got That Thing!' and Rothko's 'Red' are poles apart in content and style, but both are entertaining insights into two creative individuals.
John Logan's play 'Red', showing at Subiaco Arts Centre, is a serious, probing account of one man's artistry. In this case, we meet abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, four of whose shimmering canvasses arrived in Perth to great fanfare during the 2005 Perth International Arts Festival.
Rothko was a tortured soul who ultimately took his own life, aged 66, but 'Red' concentrates on a productive era in the 1950s when Rothko got his most lucrative art commission. Playwright Logan invents the character of Ken, a young studio assistant with his own dreams of artistic fame, in order to create conversations between the older and younger men.
It works a treat; the audience is privvy to lively debate about the meaning of art, theories of colour and thought-provoking observations on life and death. Having been berated about his lack of insight into art, Ken eventually is able to turn the tables on a man he accuses of 'titanic self-absorption'.
The quality of Logan's writing is exceptional - few other plays about art and artists come close to capturing the deep, urgent importance of creativity in our lives and the anguish in striving to achieve perfection. This one does.
Yet the dialogue is never preachy and the acting superb. As Rothko, James Hagan is an irascible, argumentative character who touchingly concedes the argument when he sees that Ken might have a point. Hagan convinces with every gesture, every searching stare into the dark shadows that, as a painter obsessed by light, he fears.
Ken, played by Will O'Mahony, is a perfect counterpoint to the older man's blustering dominance. O'Mahoney's performance is remarkably mature, balancing the passivity of an untutored young man with an emerging awareness that Rothko's genius has flaws with which he must argue.
As director and set designer, talented Lawrie Cullen-Tait produces a tight, satisfying show, which is part of Onward Production's 2011 season. Painterly lightplay across the stage adds much to the mood of the play, thanks to lighting designer Andrew Portwine. And thanks are due to Sally Burton, the theatre entrepreneur who makes a personal investment in bringing such excellence to the stage in Perth.
Downstairs at His Majesty's last week, I learned a lot about Cole Porter in Izaak Lim and Nick Maclaine's 'You've Got That Thing!', the Perth writers original musical tribute in which they wrapped a short biography around a dozen or more of Porter's songs.
Porter's music is legendary - songs like 'Night and Day', 'I Get a Kick out of You', 'You're the Top' and 'Let's do It, Let's Fall in Love'. Porter wrote hundreds of ballads, both lyrics and music, during his long career writing for Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, shows like Kiss Me Kate, High Society and Anything Goes.
Porter's glamorous life was sanitised in public; while happily married to socialite wife Linda, Porter conducted many affairs with talented young men who longed to emulate his success. 'You've Got That Thing!' takes that as the dramatic heart of a warm theatrical tribute; it invents a lover, Edward, who becomes the devoted partner in an uneasy love triangle with Porter and his wife.
As Edward, fresh-faced Will Groucutt is a singing sensation with just the right touch of naïve charm. The young performer, not yet twenty, is a natural actor with a lovely light baritone voice to match. Analisa Bell plays Ethel Merman, one of Porter's muses for whom he wrote many musical roles. Bell belts out her songs with gusto and great comedic timing, in the spirit of vaudeville and big Broadway extravaganzas. A fine counterpoint is provided by sweet-voiced Pilar Mata Dupont, as Porter's refined and long-suffering wife.
Directed by Michael Loney, this charming three-hander (accompanied by musical arranger Tim Cunniffe) had great entertainment value, albeit on a shoestring budget. Downstairs at His Majesty's was a perfect venue for this affectionate slice of Porter's life, which may yet find another life beyong this four-night run.