Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: Berkeley Rep’s ‘Dear Elizabeth”—two poets bonded through letters

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“More than kisses,” wrote the great English poet, John Donne, “letters mingle souls.”   And if ever two souls were mingled, it would be those of acclaimed American 20th century poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell  who exchanged letters for three decades.   While the two never had a romantic or sexual relationship, they had a vibrant long-distance friendship conducted largely via snail mail that was every bit as entangled as a marriage.  From 1947 until Lowell’s death in 1977, they exchanged over 400 letters across oceans and continents, critically reflecting on each other’s poems, literature, and tracking the ups and downs of their careers—they both won Pulitzers—and relationships— his three marriages and her lesbian partnerships.  Dear Elizabeth  at Berkeley Repertory Theatre  is a play based entirely on these exquisite letters and it had its West Coast premiere at the Rhoda Theatre last Wednesday.

Dear Elizabeth is the latest collaboration between Brooklyn-based playwright Sarah Ruhl and artistic director Les Waters, the award-winning creators of Eurydice, Three Sisters, and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play).  Mary Beth Fisher is Elizabeth Bishop and Tom Nelis is Robert Lowell.  Both actors have their debut at Berkley Rep.  Fisher also played Elizabeth Bishop when the play had its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre last December.  This lovely and well-crafted production consists entirely of the two talented actors reading letters aloud, with no dialogue in-between.  The letters themselves incisive snapshots of the lives they led, written in a conversational style which makes them easy to listen to.   It would not be surprising to learn they are filled with tidbits that never made their way into their poems.  Annie Smart’s set is little more than a shared literary study which changes slightly as they each change bases over the years.  It all works!  Ruhl has done such masterful job of selecting letters and passages, that their sharp intellects and quixotic artistic personalities take root and blossom, albeit quietly, as a conversation on stage.  Dear Elizabeth runs through July 7, 2013.

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.  Photo courtesy of

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Photo courtesy of

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell met each other in New York in 1947, through the poet and critic Randall Jarrell.  Lowell had just published his second book of poems, Lord Weary’s Castle, and Bishop her first, North & South.  Bishop later wrote that she “loved him at first sight.”  Lord Weary’s Castle won the Pulitzer Prize, and Lowell was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.  He frequently discussed his work with other poets, but Bishop did not. Their meeting was the first time she had discussed the nuts and bolts of her work with another poet and it was inspiring.  Something clicked in both of them; she wrote him in 1947 and he replied from Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, New York and she wrote back.   They became close and then closer still, at first admiring and critiquing each other’s work and then sharing more and more news of their personal lives.

While they both proposed to meet face to face, they rarely did, and instead conducted their treasured relationship from the safety of their writing desks where they seemed to take solace in just thinking of each other.  Of course, there were intrusions—Lowell’s various girlfriends, his three wives and children, his battles with booze and his episodes of manic depression which, more than once, led to his institutionalization.   All his “news” was packed into letters which at times seemed to floor and worry Bishop who doted on him but always maintained a brutally honesty about his work. Bishop, a lesbian, was more of a rolling stone, and couldn’t seem to stay long in one place until she met Brazilian aristocrat Lotta de Macedo Soares in Brazil and settled into a 12 year relationship that ended with Lotta’s suicide.

Over the years, missing each other became a central complaint, especially for the more volatile Lowell who wrote, “We seem attached to each other by some stiff piece of wire, so that each time one moves, the other moves in another direction.”

Fisher and Nelis, who spend a great deal of the play seated side by side at a large desk, have a chemistry that works, conveying both warmth and respect.  Fisher, who looks a bit school-marmish, is particularly adept at capturing the shyness, reserve and loneliness that plagued Bishop.  After Lotta’s suicide, there were episodes of alcohol abuse so severe that Bishop would fall and injure herself.  Fisher also conveys Bishop’s wry sense of humor.  Nelis captures the grandiose and dark aspects of Lowell, who spirals in and out of functionality but uses all his experiences as literary compost…he turns the most elegant lines!   You’ll hear a few of these but the play mainly sticks to excerpts of their letters.  The correspondence between Bishop and Lowell on which the play is based, Words in Air, was published in 2008.

Annie Smart’s sets combine with Russell Champa’s lush lighting to create magical moments of visual poetry.

The biggest take-away is a renewed appreciation for these two gifted poets and the complexity and beauty of their bond.  Did they flirt with the idea of taking it further, of calling it “love”?  In 1957, after one of their few visits crashed and burned, he penned that asking her to marry him was the biggest might have been of his life. Late in his life, Lowell wrote “I seem to spend my life missing you.”   Thankfully, for our sake, Bishop ignored him.  How many great letters have you written your spouse once you settled into a relationship?

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.  Photo courtesy of

Sarah Ruhl and Les Waters return to Berkeley Rep with Dear Elizabeth, starring Mary Beth Fisher (left) and Tom Nelis as esteemed poets and lifelong friends Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Photo courtesy of

Run-time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission

Creative Team:  Written by Sarah Ruhl.  Directed by Les Waters

Designed by Annie Smart (sets), Maria Hooper (costumes), Russell Champa (lighting), Bray Poor (sound), and Hannah Wasileski (projections)

Starring: Mary Beth Fisher and Tom Nelis

Special Events:

Tastings: Sunday 7/7 @ 6:00 PM (Semifreddi’s)

Post-show discussions: Thursday 6/13, Tuesday 6/18, and Friday 6/28 @ 8:00 PM

Docents: talks on Tuesdays and Thursdays @ 7:00 PM; discussions after all matinees

Details: Dear Elizabeth runs through July 7, 2013 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre is located at 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704.  Performances:  Tuesday-Sunday, with additional weekend matinee performances.  Tickets: $29 -$77. Call box office at 510-647-2949 or purchase online at

Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

June 3, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Berkeley Rep’s “Red”— a must-see primer for art, life and the many excesses of Mark Rothko

In the Tony Award-winning play “Red” at Berkeley Rep through May 12, 2012, renowned painter Mark Rothko (David Chandler) engages in a battle of wits with his assistant (John Brummer, at left). Photo courtesy of

For days, I’ve thought about Mark Rothko and Berkeley’s Rep’s red-hot Red.  There’s a fascinating tension in the play that involves watching the thermodynamics of Rothko’s savage personality reel into something increasingly repulsive and tragic and experiencing another set of thermodynamics at play around the fragility of his creative process and his efforts to protect his artworks from the harshness of the world.   And that’s the crux of Red—we are watching subtle transitions to other states of being unfold in man and art, right before our eyes.  That’s complex and John Logan’s  intimate two character play, under Les Waters’ powerful direction, could not be more engrossing.  Originally scheduled to close on April 29, 2012, Berkeley Rep has just added 12 more performances of Red, so it will now run through May 12, 2012.  If you’ve never before crossed the San Rafael-Richmond Bridge into Berkeley for art, this multi-Tony drama is worth the effort.

In the Tony Award-winning play “Red” at Berkeley Rep through May 12, 2012, renowned painter Mark Rothko (David Chandler) engages in a battle of wits with his assistant (John Brummer, at left). Photo courtesy of

One of the best things about Red is its realistic set, designed by Louisa Thompson, on Berkeley rep’s intimate Thrust stage.  It evokes the temporary New York Bowery studio that Rothko used from 1958-1960, when he painted 40 enormous murals for the swank Four Seasons restaurant in the newly completed Seagram Building on Park Avenue. The entire 90 minute play unfolds in this paint-encrusted studio, which is laid out with a ladder and a paint splattered wooden work table, old cans and jars full of brushes, rags and buckets of paint.  Rear panels move to expose a wall of lights, designed by Alexander V. Nichols, that illuminate Rothko’s discussion of the importance of light and why natural light is insufficient for him.   What the audience is privy to in this studio though is mainly talk—a running conversation between Rothko (David Chandler) and Ken (John Brummer), a young painter who is hired, just as the play begins, to assist Rothko, at the peak of his career, with whatever he wants.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who’d be a better fit for the role than Chandler, who so thoroughly embodies Rothko’s fierce narcissistic grandiosity and numerous insecurities that’s he literally frightening to behold.  Rothko lectures, berates and prods Ken, insisting that he is not there to teach him, but, of course, an ego this large can’t resist sharing and what ensues is a passionate live course in art history and art appreciation for young Ken.  The problem—Rothko needs to be in total control and reflexively shoots down anything anyone says.  Ken, who serves almost a cipher/slave in the beginning, really begins to come into himself once he accepts Rothko’s dangerous invitation for discourse and begins to express some very interesting opinions despite Rothko’s limitations.  Ken is John Brummer’s debut role with Berkeley Rep and he does a remarkable job.   Ken is a character who’s got a fascinating side story of suffering and anguish that, by all rights, should leave him as screwed up as Rothko is but it doesn’t.  One of the best exchanges between the two men takes places as Rothko brilliantly defends the old masters—Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Michelangelo and Caravaggio against Ken’s list of new painters —Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollack, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg.  The art discourse is superbly crafted and avoids the perilous slip into clichéd references, instead getting into some meaty philosophical issues.  I can’t recall one affirmational thing that Rothko says to Ken at any point in the play.  About the highest compliment that Rothko pays him is expressed in the negative, telling him that he’s gotten all he can out of the studio experience and he needs to move on.

One of the Red’s highlights comes when the two men, working quite feverishly, prime a canvas with red paint, orchestrated to gorgeous classical music.  This single very theatrical act of priming speaks volumes.  As much as the play is about painting though, the act of painting isn’t really shown as much as it is inferred.  In Mark Rothko’s studio, the magic of the artistic process is tightly controlled and there is a critical balance and tension that is sought—learning how far to go until everything changes and becomes something else.  Rothko lives on that edge with both color and process and it seems the very best and worst moment is when a piece of art slips away from his grasp and develops into something that he can no longer predict from the ingredients and processes he used.  When we look at a Rothko, in low light, there’s a magical sense of transition—shifts between solid, liquid and gaseous states of matter, shifting from one form of being into another—something not so easily understandable, but deeply recognized and felt.  What Logan has done and these two actors beautifully embody is the subtle tipping points in human character too—Rothko tilts from pompous to sickening to borderline dangerous, very tragic, while Ken becomes more insightful, interesting, and attractive for who he is and what he’ been through.

A Rothko at auction now:  Neither art nor theatre happens in a vacuum.  On May 8 and 9, 2012, Christies New York will sell the Pinkus Family’s 1961 Rothko, “Orange, Red, Yellow,” which is roughly from the same period that John Logan’s play Red references.   The 1961 painting was purchased by David and Geraldine Pinkus from the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1967.  Measuring nearly 8 feet by 7 feet, the painting is unusually large and of vibrant orange and reds. It is estimated to sell for $35 million to $45 million.  Other abstract expressionist works from the Pinkus collection, from this period will be auctioned too, including works by Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Arshile Gorky.  Several of these artists are mentioned in Red.   Christies calls this “the most important and comprehensive ensemble of Abstract Expressionism ever to come to auction.”

Rothko’s have been making the news for years with their record-setting prices at auction. In early November, 2005, Rothko’s 1953 oil on canvas painting, Homage to Matisse, broke the record selling price of any post-war painting at a public auction, at US$ 22.5 million.

In May 2007, Rothko’s 1950 painting White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), sold by philanthropist David Rockefeller, broke this record again, selling at US$ 72.8 million at Sotheby’s, New York.

More about John Logan:  San Diego born (9.24.61) playwright, screenwriter and film producer John Logan grew up in California and New Jersey and attended Northwestern University in Chicago.  He received the Tony Award, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League Awards for Red.  It premiered in 2009 at the Donmar Warehouse in London and, in 2010, played at the Golden Theatre on Broadway, where it won five other Tony Awards as well.  Logan is the author of more than a dozen plays, including Hauptmann and Never the Sinner. His adaptation of Ibsen’s The Master Builder premiered on the West End in 2003.  As a screenwriter, Logan had three movies released in 2011: Coriolanus, Hugo, and Rango.  His previous film work includes Any Given Sunday, The Aviator (Oscar, Golden Globe, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and Writers Guild of America nominations), Gladiator (Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and WGA nominations), The Last Samurai, RKO 281 (WGA award and Emmy nomination), and Sweeney Todd (Golden Globe Award).

Red:  Written by John Logan, Directed by Les Waters, Designed by Louisa Thompson (sets), Anna Oliver (costumes), Alexander V. Nichols (lights), and Bray Poor (sound)

Starring David Chandler (Mark Rothko) and John Brummer (Ken)

Run-time is 90 minutes with no intermission.

Details: Red runs through May 12, 2012 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street at Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Tickets are $17.50 to $85 and can be purchased online at   To purchase seats by phone, or, for more information, call (510) 647-2949.

Special Events:

Pre-show docent talks: Tuesdays 4/10, 4/17 & 4/24 and Thursdays 4/5, 4/12, 4/19 & 4/26 @ 7:00 PM

Post-play discussions: Thursday 4/5, Tuesday 4/10, and Friday 4/20 @ 8:00 PM

Student matinee: Thursday 4/19 @ noon

Tastings: Fridays 4/6 (Dr. Kracker) & 4/13 (Urbano Cellars) @ 7:00 PM, Saturday 4/14 (Peterson Winery) @ 8:00 PM, and Sundays 4/15 (Stella Nonna Catering) & 4/22 (Martin Ray Winery) @ 6:00 PM

April 7, 2012 Posted by | Art, Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment