Arts & Events

EYE FROM THE AISLE: RED at the Rep—weighed in the balance and found outstanding!

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday March 27, 2012 - 05:08:00 PM
David Chandler at Mark Rothko
David Chandler at Mark Rothko

An argument between two actors in poetic dialogue was the original basis of theatre. Whether Aeschlyus or Plato’s Dialogues, we revel in the deep ideas while we rejoice in the crafting of the argument and the fervor and wit with which it is delivered. 

RED at Berkeley Rep—about artist Mark Rothko, and more, much more—is that kind of fulfilling theatre chock full of ideas that resonate late in the night, about fighting despair and demise with creativity, about loving your art perhaps more than people, about the danger of descending into a solipsistic state in which reality is composed predominantly of one’s creations. 

Two men, one old, one young, the master and the servant, the maestro and the upstart: Marcus Rothkowitz a/k/a Mark Rothko, the pedantic Jewish curmudgeon and legendary abstract painter, with roots in the old world and the New Deal vs. the aspiring artist WASP kid of the late 1950’s named, ironically, Ken. 

Two arcs are beautifully developed with these two characters. Clashing, then in harmony, showing us that conflict is a way to synthesis and revelation, sometimes in the Rabbinical tradition of questioning and arguing intensely, then having a drink together afterwards. David Chandler as Rothko looks enough like the real Rothko and overwhelms us with his portrayal of this self-centered lion of an artist. John Brummer plays Ken, whose subtle progress from willing lackey to articulate combatant is a joy to watch. 

The dialogue is transcendent and poetic—though in simple prose—but never pompous.  

Playwright John Logan has the characters take us through a fugue of color words, a litany of reds, from Satan to Santa, from blood-in-the-sink to persimmon.  

In the midst of this tidal wave of words and ideas, there is an extended pause. To the music of Mozart, the artist and the assistant prepare a canvas by painting its basecoat red. It is a competition and a furious pas de deux to keep up with the tempo, and to keep up with and perhaps outdo the other. It is a perfect interlude to the tidal wave of words, and an apt metaphor for the play.  

Logan is also perhaps the preeminent screenwriter of the day with an amazing range. He wrote the screenplays for “Hugo,” “Gladiator,” “The Last Samurai,” “Star Trek Nemesis,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Rango,” “Any Given Sunday” and more films that you would readily recognize. 

RED won all the Tony awards for drama in 2011 except for best actor (Alfred Molina lost out to Denzel Washington). 

Les Waters’ flawless direction is his Berkeley Rep swan-song—he departs to head the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Louisa Thompson’s scenic design is functional and artistic; the upstage is filled with a battery of lights which gives a soft illumination and is a visual metaphor for Rothko’s need to show his works in just the right light. 

The Given Circumstance is the pending creation of the four murals that Rothko has been commissioned to create for the Four Seasons restaurant of the Seagram’s Building for a record payment of $35,000. His “children” would be displayed amid the clatter of dishes and the chatter of the ultra rich. There has always been tension between the artist and the patron. Michelangelo had little choice in acceding to the Pope’s commission to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Diego Rivera’s mural for Rockefeller Center was removed when he portrayed Lenin favorably in that Capitalist Shrine.  

Will Rothko be “weighed in the balance and found wanting” like the handwriting on the wall that he invokes from Rembrandt ‘s “Belshazzar's Feast”? He alludes to many paintings that bring quick images to those who know the visual artistic canon: Matisse’s “Red Studio” is recalled as his inspiration (thanks here to the astute young woman sitting next to me who recounted the name of painting for me when I misheard the reference).  

After all this existential angst, there is resolution and hope. We live and learn through watching the kind of sacrifice and servitude and ethical gestures that puts an artist in the art history books. 

RED by John Logan 

Directed by Les Waters 

BERKELEY REP thrust stage 

2025 Addison St, Berkeley 

Through April 29, 2012  

More info, tickets: 510 647–2949 

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission 

Louisa Thompson, Scenic Design; Anna Oliver, Costume Design; Alexander V. Nichols, Lighting Design; Bray Poor, Sound Design; Julie McCormick, Dramaturg; Michael Suenkel, Stage Manager; Amy Potozkin and Stephanie Klapper,, Casting. 

WITH: John Brummer and David Chandler 

John A. McMullen II is a member of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and American Theatre Critics Association. E J Dunne edits.