Berkeley Repertory Theatre fictionalizes renowned painter

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“What do you see?,” grunted an artist in paint-splattered clothing. The question, repeated several times in the first moments of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “Red,” was directed to his young assistant. There’s clearly an imbalance in the dynamic. The older man’s severe glasses channeled the sheer force of his personality, whereas the younger man’s face was soft and dewy. While the grizzled elder tucked his shirt in half-way, the youth was dressed in his Sunday best suit for the first day of work — embarrassingly out-of-place in the messy studio.At the center of “Red,” a two-character play on the philosophy and creative process of the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, is a fraught teacher-student relationship. Rothko, played by David Chandler, is at once an egotistical bully and a master artist of towering fame and influence. His assistant Ken (John Brummer), who is fictional and has no historical counterpart, is an aspiring artist. Ken spends most of the play’s duration on the periphery, buffeted by the storms raised by Rothko’s grandiose personality.The verbal friction between Rothko and Ken was a visceral experience in the relatively small Thrust Stage. The set design was realistic to the point that someone in the front row could reach out and almost touch the paint brushes and discarded cigarettes on Rothko’s studio floor. The direction by Les Waters gives the father-son-like relationship its snappy, emotionally-crushing qualities.

Part of the joy of “Red” is that the intense theoretical debates are so unfairly stacked. Typically, the master shuts down the novice’s romanticism with blasts of weathered experience. But despite the asymmetrical power relationship, the conversations are back-and-forth battlegrounds of dazzling intellect. In the play’s best moments, Rothko’s diatribes on refusing to pander to mass culture are insights into the art of seeing. Such a gift comes with the cost of loneliness, but also enables truly timeless, avant-garde work.

It is mostly to the credit of the playwright, John Logan, that the play’s prose flourishes in a bristling manner. Although Logan is normally a screenwriter — with “Gladiator,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Hugo” among his credits — he was inspired to write the play after viewing Rothko’s famed Seagram murals in person. Aptly, the strong emotional connection Rothko’s art has the power to elicit is at the heart of the story.

The play’s only setting is Rothko’s studio, but the plot is loosely structured around an intensely creative period of his life. A mid-20th century artist with a notoriously difficult personality, the actual Rothko surprised the public when he accepted a corporate grant to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant. Rothko had scornfully claimed that his mission was to “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,” but mysteriously decided to keep the masterworks for himself and return the money (worth two million by today’s standards).

The performance at Berkeley Rep offered an understanding of Rothko’s reasons for changing his mind, exploring his philosophical beliefs and encyclopedic intellect. Chandler gave a rough-hewn representation of Rothko, walking with a stiff swagger and frequently spitting criticisms of other famous artists (Picasso is belittled as a “charlatan”). Chandler fully embodied the sinewy discipline of a genius brutally opposed to commercialism, understanding the full irony of the commission. His repugnance towards making art for a restaurant where the wealthiest elite will come to dine is only matched by his obvious enthusiasm for a space created just for his art.

Although Chandler has the challenges of taking on the larger-than-life Rothko, Brummer was in an equally difficult position as Ken. The play’s built-in power imbalance means that Brummer must serve mostly as a foil to Rothko’s passionate intensity. A boy-next-door type in this double act, Brummer fared less well with Ken’s general blandness. However, Brummer also holds a strong capacity for tragedy when the play took a sudden turn to reflect on Ken’s traumatic past.

Inside the dimly-lit space, arguments between Rothko and Ken reach a feverish pitch, and are memorable for the intellectual pursuit of what it means to live on the cutting-edge. With two well-seasoned actors and the real-life messiness of the studio, the relationship between a titan of art and emotionally vulnerable youth comes alive.