Arts & Events

Theater Review:'Red' at The Rep--Mark Rothko in His Studio

By Ken Bullock
Friday April 06, 2012 - 12:33:00 PM

"Of course you like it. Everybody likes everything nowadays."

The crusty color field painter Mark Rothko coolly zings his new studio assistant, Ken, whom he's asked about his new painting in red, like the title of Berkeley Rep's new production. 'Red' beards the lion in his den—or studio, which is, in a way, the real protagonist of the show, as realized onstage by designer Louisa Thompson, with painting by Lisa Lazar. 

("My views on the theater ... whether seen though the big or little end of opera glasses, the chandelier's always seemed to me the real protagonist." A satiric remark by Baudelaire, whose writings on painters brought the first wave of modernism—and its first big personalities, like his friend Manet—into both historical and personal focus. A century and a half later, that remark often holds true for the sets—and designers—of this and other productions today.) 

'Red' seems to rely for its backstory on the artist's life and his own words ("I said that? It's like something I would say ... "), in part on the biography by the late James E. B. Breslin of Berkeley—and also on one art critic and curator: the cast and director visited Peter Selz, Berkeley's emeritus of art history, to find out more about Rothko, whom Selz knew well. 

Selz expressed himself as satisfied by David Chandler's portrayal of Rothko. Face often resolving into a mask, part defiant, part stoic, Chandler stares intently at the empty space above the first rows, absorbed in his evolving vision of his newest work. "Painting is mostly thinking," he declares to Ken (Mark Brummer). 

Playwright John Logan is maybe better known as a screenwriter ('Gladiator,' 'Hugo,' 'The Aviator,' 'Sweeney Todd'). In the movies, "biopics" are widely seen as one of the flimsiest genres, hardly ever escaping dilution, if not out-and-out kitsch. Logan has made an effort to avoid writing a biopic-for-the-stage by concentrating on the intimate in this two-hander, on the artist talking about art and his life as artist to an outsider (initially) within the confines of his studio, a locus that has become canonized as sanctuary and shrine. 

And Rothko speaks of the difficulty of letting his paintings out of the studio into the world, of finding the right place for them, the modern equivalent of the chapel for Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces—a search both spiritual and technical. 

The external conflict of the play, around which the conflict between characters gels, is Rothko's commission for murals to adorn the Four Seasons restaurant in the Mies van der Rohe/Philip Johnson Seagrams Building under construction. A classical music aficionado, Rothko's enthused by the Vivaldi reference in its name—and wary of its future as a see-and-be-seen destination for the wealthy and fashionable of Manhattan. 

Internally, it's a surrogate father-and-son chamber drama, something else open to the cliched and kitschy. Ken finally—though right on schedule, for anyone who sees a lot of dramas (or soap operas) and has a stopwatch—blows at Rothko's constant gibing and stands up for the younger generation of Pop Art Rothko excoriates. And, equally on schedule, Rothko reveals he likes the counter-punching. 

Many plays, movies, books come out purporting to be about art, poetry—or mathematics, modern physics—but prove to be about something else, merely using art or science and their special idioms as metaphor, analogy ... 

Logan admits 'Red' isn't really about painting, and from the start, the paintings and their bold, radiating colors, are used as metaphors for emotion. Springboards, as it were. Director Les Waters described 'Red' as a tour de force; the New York Times called the Broadway production "a master class of questions and answers." Someone at the reception opening night complained it was "a lecture." But 'Red' puts out a lot of exposition about and around painting, without ever settling down to the subject. All talk, no Action Painting. 

The actors perform well enough, but their vaudeville act is a bit pat: Ken's an invented interlocutor, to listen, get steamed (quietly at first) over Rothko's insouciance, and to deliver a straight line or two here and there for Rothko to slam back as a sarcastic punch line. The words on art and on the artist's mission and his life seldom get far enough past the typical cliches of the biopic type—'Lust for Life,' 'The Agony and the Ecstasy,' to turn over a couple Irving Stones—to distinguish themselves from that popular romanticism. Rothko the character rails against being typed, only to end up typing himself. If that's supposed to be part of the point, then it's really too pat! 

The character of Ken is fleshed out luridly by a Capote-esque Midwestern crime he witnessed as a boy, which he describes to Rothko—and to us. But the fix is in: art as a metaphor ... Red goes from emotion to the remembered color of blood, back to emotion again—sentiment instead of pigment and what can be created with it, transformed from the banal. 

Even the real protagonist, theatrically—the studio set—doesn't see much dramaturgical action ... Besides putting a canvas on stretcher together and priming it in rhythmic synchronization to Rothko's classical music, the studio's sort of inert. Even the record player isn't used very creatively. It's the opposite of Chekhov's dictum—and warning—"If you see a gun on the mantel in the first act, it will be discharged by the third." 

'Red' is promising, in that more authentic plays about the arts could take off from the life, the words—the practice—of great artists ... Van Gogh's super-lucid letters about painting, the poet Mallarme's relationships with Manet and Degas, Cezanne's extraordinary (and affecting) statements about the difficulties of making his innovations ... or, from Rothko's generation, the wild epistolary battles between Barnett Newman and art historian Erwin Panofsky or fellow painter Robert Motherwell in the pages of art journals ... 

Unfortunately, the results here remain muted. "Silence is so accurate," says Rothko in the play. Rothko and his generation, who sought to raise up America artistically by committing the ineffable to canvas, were also extremely articulate about what they were doing—and deserve a more active voice. 

(This is the last show directed at the Rep by Les Waters in his role of associate artistic director; he has assumed the reins of artistic direction for the Actors Theatre of Louisville.) 

Tuesdays through Sundays, different times, through April 29. Berkeley Rep Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (near Shattuck). $17-$85. 647-2949;