Review: ‘Red’

April 13, 2012, 12:39 a.m.

The first time I saw a Mark Rothko painting up close was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I liked it, though I’m pretty sure that half of my eagerness to approve was to be contrary about conventional art tastes. I’ve got a poster of one his paintings now, and the more I stare at it, the more calming I find it; it’s not just an aesthetically pleasing color swatch. But are his abstract expressionist paintings really art? This is one of the central questions of John Logan’s new play, “Red,” which introduces us to a fictitious version of Mark Rothko, born Marcus Rothkowitz, the famous Jewish-American Abstract Expressionist painter.


When you walk into the Berkeley Repertory Theater to see “Red,” you feel as though you’re walking into an artist’s studio. There are reproductions of some of Rothko’s red color field paintings, blank canvasses, working tables, a sink, a record player, a box of records, unfinished floors and a splattering of paint here and there. The thrust stage works marvelously, giving us a 270-degree view of the artist’s studio: It’s an intimate space, and the studio feels like a real-life location, not an artificial stage.


The entirety of the action in “Red” takes place in this studio, where Rothko (David Chandler) first hires his aid Ken (John Brummer), an idealistic and naive aspiring painter. The play is a series of conversations between these two over several years. At first, Rothko plays the role of lecturer, spouting theories about painting and art with absolutely no regard for Ken’s opinions or any interest in Ken’s budding career as an artist. Predictably, Ken eventually gets up the nerve to dish it back—and that’s when the tension builds, the drama explodes and the interrogation of “what is art” really gets going.


When Ken first arrives in Rothko’s studio, Rothko instructs him to look at his paintings and gives very specific instructions about where to stand and how dim the lighting needs to be, one of the reasons he has covered all the windows in the studio. Rothko was very particular about how his paintings were viewed. Some are now featured in special rooms at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and the Tate Modern in London. These rooms are long, narrow and dark, and you find yourself sitting up close, completely immersed in the painting. Rothko asks Ken what he sees—he’s looking at one of Rothko’s red color fields. The answer to this question changes during the play, and it’s a signpost for where the characters are in the debate about art.


“Red” is a heady play that takes on all the essential questions about 20th-century art. How do you respect your forebears while rebelling against them? Should art speak for itself or does it need explanation? What makes art “art?” Who should decide what art is? How do you know if an artist has “sold out?” And is there anything wrong with selling out? The characters are less flesh-and-bone than they are devices for having this debate. Unfortunately, this makes much of the action predictable and much of the interaction between Ken and Rothko cliché.


As Rothko, Chandler creates a complicated portrait of a self-important man, egotistical and arrogant about his work yet simultaneously terrified of obsolescence. He loves nothing more than to talk about how he and the other Abstract Expressionists—among them Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman—upstaged Cubism and brought in a new revolution in art. Meanwhile, he is so outrageously threatened by the new artists like Andy Warhol that he makes sport of denouncing them and their lack of intellectual value. Chandler’s Rothko is misanthropic but deeply lonely; a genius but emotionally crippled; a pompous intellectual but a man who speaks truths; a man damaged by immigration but who embraces his home in the U.S.


There are moments in “Red” when you feel like you’re witnessing genius, witnessing art being made. The most memorable scene is when Rothko starts playing a very loud and rambunctious piece of classical music on the turntable, and he and Ken lay the foundation of red on a blank canvas, in time with the music and in sync with its crescendos and decrescendos. But there are terrible moments when Brummer’s reactions are forced and planned rather than developing spontaneously as a result of the action. Nevertheless, the central argument of the play is an intriguing one and Chandler’s performance worth seeing. You might want to brush up on your Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art painters first, though, just to be sure you catch all the in-jokes and references.

Alexandra Heeney writes film, theater and jazz reviews. She has covered the Sundance Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival and her favorite, the Toronto International Film Festival. As a Toronto native, the lack of Oxford commas and Canadian spelling in this bio continue to keep her up at night. In her spare time, Alex does research on reducing the environmental impact of food waste for her PhD in Management Science and Engineering.

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