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THEATER REVIEW: “Red” at San Diego Rep | VIDEO

He’s imperious, irascible, difficult ... and brilliant.

He’s 20th-century abstractionist painter Mark Rothko (John Vickery), and starts right in bullying his new assistant Ken (Jason Maddy), a fledgling artist himself.

After a long recitation of his expectations (Ken will largely be a go-fer) comes this admonition: “I am not your rabbi, I am not your father, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend, I am not your teacher. I am your employer. You understand?”

They get off to an amusing but rocky start when Ken names Jackson Pollack his favorite artist. But as they get used to each other, they establish a working relationship and soon begin to argue the nature of art and its place in history and people’s lives.

Rothko considered art appreciation an active sport. We see him not just looking at but stalking his canvas, looking, thinking, moving up and back, side to side. Could he have ordered it, he would probably have required viewers to stand and ponder each piece, contending that the colors moved and vibrated in response to attentive observation.

He rages about the use of art as decoration, railing against people who buy a piece of art not for its artistic merit but because it’s orange or the right size to fit over the couch.

“I am here to stop your heart, you understand that? I am not here to make pretty pictures!” he said.

Yet “Red” takes place in 1958-59, when Rothko was working on a commission from architect Philip Johnson for a series of murals for New York’s new Seagram building. They would be installed in the building’s Four Seasons restaurant.

Ken calls him on his hypocrisy: “The High Priest of Modern Art is painting a wall in the Temple of Consumption. You rail against commercialism in art, but pal, you’re taking the money.”

(Historically, Rothko thought they were for the building’s lobby; when he found out the destination walls were in the restaurant, he refused to deliver them.)

Rothko had a huge ego, but big insecurities as well. He confesses his biggest fear: “One day the black will swallow the red.”

One day in 1970, it did, and Rothko committed suicide.

Director Michael Arabian sets the pace and gets out of the way, letting Logan’s brilliant script and these two fine actors at the top of their form tell the story.

Vickery gets the bluster, the capital-E ego, but also the deep-down ache for significance and the fear that drove him.

Maddy has never been better, as he traces Ken’s development from cowed go-fer to confident colleague, even friend of the brilliant Russian immigrant.

“Red” plays through April 27 at San Diego RepertoryTheatre and is not to be missed.

The details

“Red” plays through April 27 at San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.