Red paints an unlikeable portrait at Everyman Theatre - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Red paints an unlikeable portrait at Everyman Theatre

What do you think of when you see the color red?

Wine?  A heartbeat?  Passion and Roses?  Or do you think of Anger and Dresden?

If you said Anger or Dresden, then you will enjoy spending ninety minutes meeting Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko in the current production of Red at Everyman Theatre.

Directed by Donald Hicken, Red comes to Everyman with some fanfare.  It was the winner of six 2010 Tony Awards, including Best Play.  But the plaudits for this play are as mystifying to this reviewer as is the praise for Rothko’s redundant renderings.

Author John Logan presents Rothko as a man at war with himself; railing against his fellow artists and the changing times.  Into this cauldron wanders Ken, an aspiring young artist who signs on to be Rothko’s apprentice.

Eric Berryman and Bruce Randolph Nelson consider a painting in the Everyman Theatre production of Red. (ClintonBPhotography)

Eric Berryman and Bruce Randolph Nelson consider a painting in the Everyman Theatre production of Red. (ClintonBPhotography)

At their first meeting, Rothko directs Ken’s eyes to his latest series of paintings, saying, “Let it pulsate, let it work on you.  Let it wrap its arms around you.” Then, ironically, Rothko asks Ken for his thoughts, saying, “Be exact, be sensitive, be kind.”  The irony here, as we quickly learn, is that Rothko is the antithesis of sensitive and kind.

Killing kindness with every other line, Rothko gets shots in on his earnest assistant; on his fellow expressionists (particularly Jackson Pollack); and on up-and-coming pop artists like Andy Warhol.  Rothko even lambastes the very public which has pushed him to the top of his profession.  Ken notes the pathetic nature of this mindset when he says, “No one is good enough for you, including the people who buy your paintings.”

So why did people buy Rothko’s work?  According to Rothko, there are several reasons:

“It’s cheaper than a Pollack.”

“It’ll look good over the fireplace, plus it matches the sofa.”

“Someone told them the New York Times said they should have one.”

Bitter reasons, though Ken rightly observes, “You rail against commercialism in art, but you take the money.”

And so it goes on.  And on.  And on.

Bruce Randolph Nelson stars as the disillusioned painter Mark Rothko. (ClintonBPhotography)

Bruce Randolph Nelson stars as the disillusioned painter Mark Rothko. (ClintonBPhotography)

There is a lot of point and counter-point in Red, which is to be expected with a two-man play.  What does surprise is that the actors playing Rothko and Ken are able to make the hostile histrionics as palpable as they do.

Bruce Randolph Nelson (fresh off of a hilarious turn as Groucho Marx in the Centerstage production of Animal Crackers) plays the mercurial Rothko.  Nelson handles the ups and downs of his character well, and his broadsides are largely measured considering the vituperative nature of his dialogue.  Nelson also does a lot of little things very well.  Breaking an egg to mix with the paint and wiping his glasses with his shirt-tail may seem incidental, but motions such as these help to keep the audience involved with an otherwise alienating persona.

Rising star Eric Berryman (as Ken) is strongest in his characterization when he relies on his fine acting instincts and goes toe-to-toe with the worst that Nelson’s Rothko can offer.  Conversely, Berryman appeared ill at ease in the scene where he described his parents’ deaths.  His hesitation sounded unnatural; a far cry from the steady-handed way he delivers in his other scenes.  Losing this affectation would greatly enhance an otherwise solid performance.

It is to their credit that Nelson and Berryman keep this production moving along.  The script, while chock full of biting lines, only once evokes any sympathy for the main character, and when it does, it is with a tasteless allusion to Rothko’s ultimate demise.  For a play about an artist who was obsessed with color, Red paints an unflatteringly monochromatic portrait.

Adding to the problems with the story are a couple of annoying elements with the production.

Eric Berryman as Ken.  (ClintonBPhotography)

Eric Berryman as Ken. (ClintonBPhotography)

The opening music (violin and piano “played” through a phonograph speaker) was far too loud and went on forever, leaving the greying audience to strain to hear several pages worth of dialogue.  Worse, this tedious effect was repeated several times throughout the show.  Perhaps that’s an accurate representation of the atmosphere in Rothko’s studio, but as theater, it is absolutely deadly.  Hopefully, some quicker fades will be added for the rest of the run.

The scene changes (there are five of them) also seemed slow and unfortunately affected the cadence.  Since the re-sets basically involve moving props such as paint pails, saw horses and canvas stretchers around, it might help to have the larger of these props closer at hand.

Speaking of the props, Jillian Mathews’ many props worked very well, though the Chinese food cartons may seem anachronistic to those who recall the round ice-cream type containers that were still popular for Chinese fare in the 1960’s.

Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger gives the production a convincing, workaday feel with a set which fully captures the artist’s expansive studio.  Nancy Schertler’s Lighting Design nicely underscores Rothko’s aversion to natural light.  And David Burdick’s costumes would easily pass muster on the campus of MICA.

The Rothko No. 14 hangs at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Wikimedia Commons)

The Rothko No. 14 hangs at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Wikimedia Commons)

“How do you know when a painting is done?”

“When there is tragedy in every brush-stroke.”

When Red is done, what we find is not so much a tragic figure, as one who wallows in the twilight of his own self-importance.  Red is ninety mostly forgettable minutes book-ended by two pretty good performances.

See it for the actors.  Besides, it’s cheaper than buying a Mark Rothko painting.


Everyman Theater’s production of Red runs now through Dec. 8.  Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.  The theater is located at 315 W. Fayette St, in downtown Baltimore.  Tickets and other information may found by contacting the box office at 410-752 -2208 or online. Please note that there is cigarette smoking in Red, so those with respiratory problems are cautioned when selecting their seats.

About the author

Anthony C. Hayes

Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony's poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, "Thou shalt not steal." Contact the author.

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