Portrait of the Artist as an Egomaniac

British-born director Les Waters has been a consistently outstanding artistic presence at Berkeley Repertory Theatre for the last eight years as associate artistic director for the company. He’s now been named the new artistic director of the prestigious Actors Theatre of Louisville, home of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, so his latest production at Berkeley Rep is also his last as a staff member. At least he’s going out in style, with a superb production of Red, John Logan’s play about legendary abstract expressionist painted Mark Rothko.

John Brummer and David Chandler in Red. Photo by kevinberne.com.

Red, which debuted at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2009 and hit Broadway in 2010, is by far Logan’s most acclaimed work, winner of the Tony for best play and several other prestigious awards. He’s written other plays (Never the Sinner, Hauptmann, Riverview), but he’s also a prolific screenwriter of many movies (Hugo, Rango, Coriolanus, Bats, Any Given Sunday, The Aviator, Gladiator, The Last Samurai, Sweeney Todd, The Time Machine, Star Trek: Nemesis) that are notable for many things other than their screenplays.

It’s a tidy, well-crafted, intellectually engaging and often very funny play with enough obvious artifice that it never feels like anything other than a play.  The conversations—arguments, really—in Red are tremendously enjoyable. They don’t sound much like real conversations but are full of grand statements and aria-like extended rants. If people actually said all the things they wish they’d said in retrospect, they might talk this way.

A young man in a suit comes to the studio of painter Mark Rothko. The artist stands the kid in front of one of his paintings and asks him what he sees, but for a long time he doesn’t get a chance to say a word as Rothko preempts any response by fiddling with the lights and berating him to “be a human being” for once in his life. It doesn’t matter, because we already know what his response is going to be—we already know what he sees in the painting. It’s the title of the play.

The kid has come to be Rothko’s new assistant, which makes the difference between his clean suit and the artist’s paint-covered clothing all the more amusing. (I don’t envy whoever has to launder Anna Oliver’s sharp costumes. It’s 1958 or so, and the now-legendary abstract expressionist is working on a commission of a series of murals for the posh Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram building, all in dark reds.

There’s one marvelous scene in which the two furiously apply a ground coat of red paint to a white canvass in time with a forceful classical piece on the phonograph, but that’s the only time we see Rothko at work. The rest of the time he spends talking about himself, occasionally taking a break to talk about his friend and late contemporary Jackson Pollock or to rant about the new pop artists who are ruining art. Although initially deferential and shy to speak, the assistant takes the counter position of youth and modernity. Even right after being screamed at for presuming to answer the artist’s rhetorical question about what a painting needs, he quickly regroups and quietly clarifies himself. He doesn’t presume to be treated as an equal, but he makes himself heard nonetheless.

It would be hard to suspend disbelief enough to think that the assistant is actually a real person. He doesn’t even seem like a composite character drawn from several real people, but just as a device created to be a foil for Rothko. He’s given a name in the program, Ken, but he’s never called anything in the dialogue because he doesn’t really have a name. He only thinks he does.

That’s fine as far as it goes. He serves his purpose admirably well, giving Rothko someone to rant to and providing an opportunity to comment on the artist, analyze his work, challenge him, get him riled, and call him on his bullshit. And, at times, even if we don’t believe in the assistant we feel for him anyway and take pleasure when he asserts himself. The flimsiness of his fictional existence does call attention to itself in a couple of places, though, particularly when Logan suddenly gives him a surprisingly gruesome back story that feels gratuitous, except that it ties in naturally (and luridly) with the color red.

The other conspicuous moment is a mixed bag, because it’s awfully satisfying when it happens and only becomes problematic when you give it any thought. At one point the assistant asks Rothko if he knows anything about him—where he lives, if he’s married, anything. The artist doesn’t, of course, because his only use for the kid, besides to do odd jobs around the studio, is as a mirror that he can use to think and talk about himself. That seems rude and self-centered on the surface, of course, and it is that, but the thing is, Rothko is not wrong to think of this person that way. That really is all he is and all he’s for. It’s unkind to the assistant but not unfair.

John Brummer brings the kid to life admirably well, from his initial hand-wringing nervousness to his quiet, soulful stoicism to his frustrated and incisive intelligence. David Chandler is marvelously imposing as Rothko: stern and quick to anger over a base coat of disdain, always testing and challenging the helper who is by no means his disciple, and never so energized as when he’s talking about himself, which is always. He’s a bully but not quite a blowhard because he really does know what he’s talking about; the trouble is that his only interest in anyone else’s views is to appraise how close they come to his own correct ones.

A rarity in the Rep’s Thrust Stage in that it forgoes a raised stage, Louisa Thompson’s set is a wonder, a terrific portrait of a paint-splattered artist’s studio. Large Rothko canvasses of red rectangles lean against the walls, behind rolling carts covered with paint cans and a sink streaked with red.

At the performance I attended the stage lights went haywire in the middle of an early scene, so the rest of the performance had to be staged under unvarying work lights. (There was even an announcement from the booth about it at the end of that scene, less for the audience’s benefit than to let the actors know they’d have to proceed without lighting cues from now on.) That was unfortunate because there’s a lot of talk in the very next scene about how much Rothko’s work depends on the light in which it’s viewed, which got a laugh as the actors winced at the harsh light that we’d now have to imagine. It’s also a pity because Alexander V. Nichols’s lighting design looks to be very involved and interesting: a couple of times the panels of the rear wall slid aside to reveal a huge bank of large lights pointing right at us, which presumably would have been turned on during a normal performance. They looked pretty cool regardless.

Once the initial lighting disturbance had passed and the work lights became the new normal, however, the change didn’t detract from appreciation of the play. In the performances, the dynamic pace and all the design elements (one matinee’s technical difficulties aside), the Rep production shows what Waters does best—take all the strengths of the play and show them in their best light.

Through May 12
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show#33 of 2012, attended March 24.

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment