Saturday, March 24, 2012

Red Art on Stage

In the Tony Award-winning play Red at Berkeley Rep, renowned painter Mark Rothko (David Chandler) engages in a battle of wits with his assistant (John Brummer, at left).

Photo courtesy of All images © Berkeley Repertory Theatre. All rights reserved.

This week I attended the West Coast premier of John Logan’s play Red at Berkeley Rep. The play takes place in the studio of Mark Rothko. The only characters in the play are the artist Rothko and his young studio assistant. The play spans the two-year period when Rothko was working on a commission for murals for the then new Four Season’s restaurant in New York’s Seagram’s Building. The murals were never delivered and the large commission payment was returned. The play explores the timeless theme of the relationship between pupil and teacher. It also is about the generation gap, and particular the conflict between successive generations of artists.

There is no need to further review Red. The play began its run in London in 2009 and then moved to New York where it picked up plenty of awards, including six Tonys. It’s an excellent work, and in the hands of the Bay Area’s top theatre, you’re guaranteed one of those this-is-why-I-go-to-the-theatre experiences. What makes the play extra special, for us artists, is that Red can be described as an enhanced experience.

Portraying an artist on film can be tricky (and is not always successful). On stage it can be an even greater challenge. In Red, the illusion begins with Louisa Thompson’s set. She recreated Rothko’s New York studio and one could say she created the third character for the play. The first thing we noticed walking into the theatre where the walls leading up the stage were covered with leaning canvases — all works in progress. The expanse of flat stage was a spare mess with a handful of artists’ tables and carts crammed with paints, brushes and other supplies. We were in the studio.

It’s nearly impossible for any actor playing a painter to convincingly paint on stage. Rothko’s process allows for the rare occasion where it can be done. While no actor could do a finished work on stage, an actor can portray Rothko laying down layers of ground or under painting. The stage crew can recreate believable, half finished, Rothko works. The only big “action” scene (see photo above) is when Rothko and his assistant apply the first layer of paint to a big canvas. I realize for practical purposes, water-based paints were used, but the only think missing was the smell. I love the smell of oil paint. There needed to be some opened containers of oil paint on those tables to infuse the studio/stage with that wonderful smell. Although, being that it is Berkeley, someone would have had an issue.

As theatergoer, Red is great. As both an artist and a theatergoer it was a rare and brilliant experience. If you’re in the Bay Area, you have until April 29th to see Red.

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