Ken (John Brummer) engages in a battle of wits with renowned painter Mark Rothko in “Red”. Photo:
Ken (John Brummer) engages in a battle of wits with renowned painter Mark Rothko in “Red”. Photo:

After its successful London and Broadway run, the powerful Paint it Red! is now at Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage. This stunning two-person play presents a fictionalized account of artist Mark Rothko’s (David Chandler) artistic, emotional and intellectual journey as he paints a major series of canvases for a lucrative fee. His assistant, young artist, Ken (John Brummer), has been hired to help with the project.

In 1958, the outwardly arrogant, but inwardly insecure Rothko was commissioned by Phillip Johnson and Seagram & Sons Company to paint a series of seven canvases for the upscale Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram’s Building on Park Avenue. Quite a coup for an artist who had worked for more than 30 years in relative obscurity. Rothko ultimately painted 30 pieces from which the seven would be chosen.

At the beginning of Red, Rothko is optimistic about his well-paying gig. He talks to Ken about the process and character of his art. Rothko can be philosophical, opinionated, loquacious and vain in his lectures to Ken. But, whenever he speaks about art, Rothko captures the audience with his extensive knowledge, keen intellect and strong passion.

Both Ken and Rothko have certain colors that they use as symbols of life and death. For Rothko, red and black are in constant tension. “There is only one thing I fear in life. One day the black will swallow the red,” he says. This dark conflict foretells the real Rothko’s suicide in 1970.

John Brummer, left, and David Chandler, right, in “Red”. Photo:
John Brummer, left, and David Chandler, right, in “Red”. Photo:

As this 90-minute pay progresses, Ken starts to assert himself until his frankness and honesty challenge Rothko. At times, it’s more than Rothko wants to hear. This change in the balance of power occurs as the artist re-thinks whether the project is right for his art and his sensibilities.

The real Rothko and his wife dined at the restaurant and considered it pretentious and inappropriate for the display of his works. Perhaps his uncomfortable two years at Yale as a Jew among the elitist and racist WASPs still haunted him. Rothko suddenly rejected the commission and gave back his fee. The artist never explained his precise motive. He had been aware of the luxurious and exclusive nature of the restaurant all along, but something had changed in him. In Red, Rothko’s dialogue with Ken is the catalyst for the artist’s abrupt reversal.

Rothko kept the commissioned art in storage until 1968. The Seagram Murals arrived in London for display at the Tate Gallery on the day of Rothko’s suicide. The murals now hang in London’s Tate Modern museum, Japan’s Kawamura Memorial Museum, and Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art.

The play is blessed with Tony- and Oscar-winning playwright John Logan (Hugo, The Aviator), director Les Waters (former Berkeley Rep Associate Director), two impressive actors, David Chandler and John Brummer, and a wonderful set by Louisa Thompson.

Red packs an emotional and intellectual wallop. The discussions between Rothko and Ken about art and its history, nature, importance and process are spellbinding. Not-to-be-missed theater.

For information and tickets, visit the Berkeley Rep website.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...