It shouldn’t surprise anyone that great swaths of dialogue in Red, John Logan’s fabulous play about the artist Mark Rothko, are devoted to word-association games about color. Actually, two colors in particular — red (life, energy, passion, sex, blood) and black (death, or the absence of color). Rothko — played by David Chandler in a new production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre — is fixated on the idea that black is eventually going to overtake red, meaning, essentially, that we’re all going to die. As a painter he has an unusually vexing relationship with the idea of mortality. The conventional wisdom is that artists achieve more success posthumously than they do in life, but Rothko is already seeing himself outstripped by a new generation of masters (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns) and by a market that treats paintings as a commodity. He’s preoccupied with the idea of finding a custodian to safeguard his legacy.
That’s what’s implied, at least, although Rothko would never put it in those terms. His “red/black” metaphor provides a veiled way to address all his fears about death, obsolescence, and finance driving art. “Black” is a catch-all for an unnamed, malevolent force — be it society, or commerce, or “goddamn son of a bitch art critics,” or an increasingly apathetic public, or even old age. It seems to always hover outside Rothko’s vibrant red studio, threatening to corrupt the artist’s muse and stanch out the other colors. No wonder the windows atop Louisa Thompson’s primal, cluttered set are streaked in black paint.
And black isn’t the only interloper. In the first scene of Red, Rothko meets his new apprentice, Ken (John Brummer), an insouciant, clean-cut kid in a Sunday suit. The kid is there to paint undercoats, fetch food and cigarettes, and learn the tricks of the trade. Rothko, the master, is skeptical. He quickly disabuses Ken of the notion that an artist’s studio is any kind of “salon with teacakes.” His first command: Read Nietzsche. Also: Lose the suit.
Ken comes in right as Rothko is undergoing a severe crisis of faith. He’s been offered a lucrative commission from the beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons to paint a giant frieze inside Seagram’s new Park Avenue restaurant, The Four Seasons. It’s the ultimate sellout job, but it also promises a giant $35,000 paycheck that Rothko finds hard to refuse. And, sadly, it puts him right alongside the “Zeitgeist artists” he reviles — Warhol with his soup cans, Johns with his flags, Lichtenstein with his comic strips. If nothing else, Ken provides a willing audience. By scene two, he’s traded the suit for a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt, rendering himself a blank canvas onto which Rothko can foist ideals and purge insecurities. It’s perhaps no accident that, over the course of the play, Ken is splattered with more and more red paint.
The two forge a wary and mutually distrusting relationship that allows Rothko to spend most of the play imparting wisdom. Painting is 90 percent thought, and 10 percent putting paint onto canvas, he admonishes. Life is a perpetual cycle of growth and cessation. And oh, by the way — read Freud. Ken listens with a mix of fascination and horror, incurs blandishments, does the required reading, and concludes that Rothko is the Apollo to Jackson Pollack’s Dionysus — the former is all about intellect and order, the latter about excess. (The play, of course, does everything it can to undermine that analogy.) Rothko paces the studio like a wise, caged animal, tilting his head, crumpling his mouth, meticulously wiping his brushes and polishing his records. He’s clearly a difficult character to inhabit, and for the most part, Chandler does it well. On opening night his first tantrum began a bit forced, but by the end he was genuinely fierce and titanic.
Because Red is so laden with dialogue, language becomes a physical presence as well as a mechanism for transmitting ideas. When Rothko latches onto a thought, he tends to verbalize it over and over again. One of his favorites, “The child must banish the father,” is oft-repeated throughout the play, and it always got a “harrumph” from someone in the audience. More interesting than the script, however, are the character actions. Director Les Waters made sure to always foreground the power dynamic, even in moments that are void of dialogue (there are few). At one such point, the two characters paint a canvas red together — Rothko patiently and carefully, Ken with quick, violent, spasmodic brushstrokes. It’s the play’s equivalent to a love scene.
For all its cleverness, though, Red is a remarkably simple and literal play. The whole thing has absolute thematic coherence: The language is smeary and painterly, the father-son concept comes full circle, and the set bears only three colors (red, white, and black). One scene is blocked so that Rothko has his back to the audience nearly the whole time. But like the color in the play’s title, he’s still volatile.