When I studied drawing with Dan Samborski at American River College, I had an ongoing argument with him (conducted almost entirely in my own head) about what constituted good art. Not well executed: good. Meaningful. Worthwhile. Samborski’s tastes run to post-modern, and I am far more traditional. He talked quite a bit about 20th Century American painters; about modernism, postmodernism, and how passé Impressionism’s “purple shadows” are; about meaning and the impulse to create; about what the artist was trying to express. It was good stuff, and my silent argument with my teacher energized me long after I completed his classes.
Samborski’s words came flooding back to me as I watched the B Street Theatre’s production of Red by John Logan on Saturday night. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Play of 2010, Red focuses on artist Mark Rothko in about 1958, as he worked on a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. The play is an interpretation of Rothko’s struggle about whether his own work was meaningful art or commodity. Rothko is hugely self-absorbed, but eventually admits to his assistant, Ken, his fears of dying and, in the words written on the wall in the Book of Daniel, of being “weighed in the balance and … found wanting.” (Isn’t that what we all fear?)
This two-person play is a brilliantly conceived and, in the B Street production, finely executed portrayal of both the art world in transition and an individual artist’s struggle to make the work all it can be: to engage the viewer, to resonate emotionally, to communicate—something. The conversations between Rothko and Ken swirl around and through vast territories of human experience, from what they teach in art school nowadays to murder. Meanwhile, the action on stage (such as it is) revolves around the everyday acts of stretching canvas, mixing colors, getting Chinese takeout. One of the plays lightest scenes comes as the two prime a large canvas together, to music (Handel, I think).
One of Samborski’s contentions was that few movies (or, by extension, plays) capture at all well what it’s really like to be an artist, to create for a living. On that point I agree with him. Happily, profoundly, Red is an exception: it fiercely captures both the mundaneness of studio work and the feeling of, in Samborski’s words, “walking on ball bearings” as one brings each piece to life and imbues it with one’s hopes and fears for its existence, even as the world marches on.
The B Street Theatre’s production, featuring Brian Dykstra portrays Mark Rothko and David McElwee as Ken, is definitely worth seeing. Red runs through September 22. Four stars.