RED a powerful drama at Berkeley Rep

Left Photo: Renowned painter (r) Mark Rothko (David Chandler) engages in a battle of w
its with his assistant Ken (l) (John Brummer). Right Photo: Ken and Rothko size a canvas in preparation for part of the Seagram Murals. Photo courtesy of

RED: Drama. By John Logan, directed by Les Waters. Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Berkley Rep)Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 647-2949 or March 22 –April 29, 2012.


RED a powerful drama at Berkeley Rep

Red the two-hander drama that originated at the Donmar Warehouse in London and went on to win the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, is receiving a stunning production on Berkeley Rep’s intimate Thrust Stage. Its billing as a “bio-drama” is challenged by my artist seatmate, a former board member of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a champion of the abstract expressionist movement and a personal friend of Mark Rothko. At the end of the play, after a few moments of silence that seemed interminable, his two word cogent comment was, “Hollywood bio!”

That being so, this reviewer highly recommends seeing Red that is beautifully acted by David Chandler (Rothko) and John Brummer (Ken) a fictional neophyte painter who comes to work for the famous artist.

The time of the play is the 1950s and Rothko’s fame is legion. He has been given a $35,000 commission to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the soon to be completed Seagram’s Building in New York City. Some of those huge murals which were never hung in the Four Seasons are known as the “Seagram Paintings” now hang in London’s Tate Museum.

In the beginning of the play Ken is a sounding board for Rothko’s passionate dialog on art, its meaning and how the viewer should contemplate a painting. Author John Logan allows Rothko to insist that he is not a teacher but in the first half of the play the dialog suggests otherwise. Chandler’s passionate non-stop verbal admiration of the fine points of the work of past masters including Picasso, Michelangelo, Matisse and especially Caravaggio, is brilliant.

We are well into the play before Ken becomes a thoughtful, sensitive and intelligent character with cogent thoughts on art and art history. He applauds the death of cubism by the emergence of the abstract expressionists who are being replaced by such names as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. This admiration by Ken of these “contemporary favorites” is provocation to Rothko and adds conflict to their evolving relationship.

Author Logan justifies the liberty taken with the true biography of Mark Rothko insisting he is more interested in father-son relationships that are known to include notorious generational differences . . . just as there are notorious generational differences between artistic movements. He gives Ken a heart touching scene describing the horrendous death of his parents that Brummer delivers with a Tony Award winning touch.

Putting the biographical misrepresentations aside, Les Waters, who has returned from his new position as Artistic Director of the world renowned Actor’s Theatre of Louisville to direct Red, displays his directorial skills. The scene where Rothko and Ken prime a huge canvas, in red of course, to the strains of classical music is a gem. He moves his actor/intellectual combatants like chess pieces around Louisa Thompson’s realistically designed cluttered studio workshop using the props for emphasis.

One might wonder about the significance of the huge back wall of light reflectors (could it be to emphasize Rothko’s ambivalence to natural light?), backed by solid off-white colored bricks, shielded by floor to ceiling sliding panels of transparent scrim. It does display a great deal of thought but one wonders if it also adds distraction to a very powerful drama.

Kedar K. Adour,

Courtesy of