"The only thing I fear, my friend," says Mark Rothko... "one day the black will swallow the red."
David Chandler plays Rothko, the famous 20th Century modernist painter, in John Logan's Tony-winning "Red," which opened March 22 at Berkeley Rep. Red, the color is everywhere, in Louisa Thompson's paint-strewn artist's studio, on the paintings, spilled on the floor -- but it is also in our minds, as Rothko and his assistant Ken (John Brummer) lash out at their own demons, arguing over what makes art worthwhile.
The show begins in 1958, as the artist is preparing five enormous red murals, for which he has been paid a fortune in advance, to adorn the walls of the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram's Building in midtown Manhattan. He is wrestling with the realization that no one who goes to that restaurant will ever appreciate his art, if they notice it at all, but he is also proud that it is he who received the commission instead of one of his rivals like Willem de Kooning.
We see the creative process -- or, at least, a creative process as imagined by a dramatist who is writing about a painter -- with all its wiggles and splashes and messes. Rothko claims painting is 90% contemplation and 10% putting paint on canvas -- and it certainly seems that way here. The show is 90+ minutes without an intermission, and consists of two men talking. There is only one scene with action, and it is surely to be your favorite. Let's just say it involves a lot of red.
But "Red" is not the least bit tiresome. Chandler's Rothko is wise and reflective and says whatever comes into his head. His assistant Ken, who is at first afraid to say much, eventually delivers the ultimate stinger to his employer. Their relationship - the boy with no father and the older man who refuses to be one - is fascinating to watch.
But don't expect "Pollock." In life, Jackson Pollock, who was both Rothko's friend and rival, had already committed suicide by 1958. He was a wild man, and so was his film. "Red" is measured, like the artist and his brilliant murals.
RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Red" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. It is a difficult show for only two actors but Chandler and Brummer pull it off. We would have liked to have seen a little more development in Brummer's Ken, but, after all, the show is not about him.
The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the Red Scene. Picasso has his Blue Period, and now Rothko has his Red Scene. It is not an accident that during this scene there is silence.
Berkeley Repertory Theater
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through May 12.