Courtesy photoBattle of wits: In “Red

‘Red’ crisply explores the meaning of art

In “Red,” the murals remain just out of view of the audience. But when the artist asks, “What do you see?” we feel their power.

The artist is 20th-century master Mark Rothko, and the paintings are his biggest commission to date — the ones intended to hang in New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant until “the end of time.”

Immortality is a major theme in John Logan’s tense two-character play, onstage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in an incisive production directed by Les Waters. So is the significance of great paintings — and the fleeting reputations of the artists who make them.

Rothko (in a propulsive performance by David Chandler) is the reigning king of the abstract expressionist movement (the play is set in 1959). He scorns the cubists who came before him and fears the modernists who seem poised to make his work obsolete.

In the opening scenes, he berates his new assistant, Ken (John Brummer), who dares to express his admiration for Picasso, Warhol and Rothko’s chief rival, Jackson Pollock.

The painter’s wrath doesn’t end there.

Rothko, a Russian immigrant with a keen sense of history, ridicules artists like Ken who know nothing of Freud or Nietzsche. He despises the public’s acceptance of works he considers trash — “Everyone likes everything,” he sneers — or rich patrons who want to buy paintings to match their sofas.

Yet when Rothko gazes on his own work, something transcendent happens. Describing the energy of a particular shade of red, or the movement in his signature blocks of color, the depth of his artistry glows from within.

Logan’s play turns on an actual incident in art history — the moment when Rothko decided to break his contract and keep the murals he promised to the Four Seasons.

The playwright makes Ken the agent of change; as the two men spar, prime a giant canvas and dissect the purpose of art, Rothko’s supremacy crumbles. The final scene is potent — even for those expecting the outcome.

Waters, in his final assignment as the Rep’s associate artistic director, delivers a crisply paced production. Contributing handsomely is the paint-splattered studio set (by Louisa Thompson), subtle lighting (Alexander V. Nichols) and apt costumes (Anna Oliver); the music in Bray Poor’s sound designs still needed fine tuning opening night.

Yet Logan’s script is tightly crafted, and Chandler and Brummer give it an urgent, expressive performance.

Red

Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes April 29

Tickets: $14.50 to $83

Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

artsBerkeley Repertory TheatreentertainmentLes Waters

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