John Logan’s Tony Award winning play Red opened on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust stage, making the audience privy to celebrated American artist Mark Rothko’s larger than life rants and rages as well as his passion and genius. The entire play takes place in the artist’s Bowery studio in the late ‘50s, at a time when he began work on a series of murals commissioned for the new Four Seasons restaurant in New York. His latest assistant Ken puts up with, but ultimately confronts and challenges the artist, as the two of them work side by side in the studio. The visceral and the tactile mix and swirl together with the heady intellectualness of the spoken word in this riveting play, making Red a must-see performance.
Scenic designer Louisa Thompson’s set is a work in tactile richness, backed by giant aluminum lights, a tribute to the fact that Rothko hated natural light. Big tin buckets of paint and coffee cans overflowing with thick bristled brushes -- together with mason jars crammed with all manner of artist’s tools and cleaning rags -- jostle for space on a sturdy woodblock table. Everything, including a working deep sink, is speckled and spattered with color. Indigo blue and rich vermillion and rust; burnt umber and magenta, but above all red, create the working canvas of the theatrical set, all serving to bring Rothko himself into brilliant and bold relief.
The bad-tempered and cynical artist is played by David Chandler who gives a no-holds-barred performance of the abstract impressionist that is absolutely stunning to behold. He plunges into the part wholeheartedly and never looks back, creating a character that burns with intensity and artistic genius. What we witness is a certain moment in time where Rothko’s uncompromising dedication to his craft, not to mention his bouts with depression, made him dark and cold and ever the outsider. “There was never a genius without a tincture of madness,” Aristotle aptly noted and Chadler’s Rothko holds true to this notion. He viciously roars at his new assistant Ken, pouncing on every perceived flaw evinced by the young man. Nothing is good enough for Rothko. He is less mentor and more bully; more the frustrated artist than any kind of teacher.
At first Ken, played beautifully by John Brummer, isn’t quite sure how to take the acclaimed painter, but silently allows the artist to belittle him. Rothko quickly makes it clear that Ken is to be at his beck and call. “Any whim, no matter how demanding or demeaning,” must be met if Ken is to be kept on as his assistant. The master and servant roles are set, but very quickly the two become intellectual sparring partners as well. Back and forth they go, reflecting on everything from Dionysian versus Apollonian perspectives to the “tyranny of ‘fine,’” and what the color and emotion of red actually means.
Punctuating the masterful wordplay are vivid moments of physicality that highlight the beauty of live theatre. The actors eat Chinese noodles onstage, pots of paint are mixed, canvases stretched and brushes rinsed in a sink with running water. In the shows crowning moment, the two men cover a canvas in vivid red paint, spattering it all over themselves and the floor. It is simply astounding to watch; there is red everywhere. “There’s only one thing I fear in life, my friend” the celebrated artist reveals, “that one day the black will swallow the red. Indeed his life was a study in red and black, life and death, joy and despair. Logan captures it all beautifully in Red.
Written by John Logan
Directed by Les Waters
Now thru April 29, 2012
Photo courtesy of kevinberne.org