Having never seen or heard the painter Mark Rothko, it's impossible to say if actor Brian Dykstra channels the influential artist or not. Dykstra channels something deep, though, in his heavyweight performance of the raging abstract expressionist master in John Logan's "Red," opening the B Street Theatre's new B3 Series.
By all accounts, Rothko was prickly, demanding and obsessively consumed with making his art. Logan's 2010 Tony-winning play presents him just so. Neither the writing nor Dykstra's captivating, larger-than-life performance attempt to manufacture a charming or sympathetic rogue from Rothko's imposing profile. Instead, they create a fascinating, implacable, unpredictable, intellectual bully. Don't even try taking your eyes off him. You can't, and you shouldn't miss a moment of the onstage excellence.
On the receiving end of Rothko/Dykstra's bombast is David McElwee's Ken, the artist's new assistant. The play based on actual events follows the fictitious Ken's tenure with Rothko in 1958-59, when the artist had just accepted a commission to paint a group of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant being built on Park Avenue.
Beverage magnate Seagram and Sons had funded the building designed by architects Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, who asked Rothko for the paintings. Rothko agreed to provide paintings, though executing the commission forced him to reconcile fiercely held beliefs about the art world in general and his own work in particular. At one point in the play, Rothko suggests his underlying intent is to paint something that will, "ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment."
The two-man play takes place completely in Rothko's studio (Elizabeth Hadden designed the convincing set) with the imposing, shimmering canvases lining the walls.
To McElwee's credit, Ken, a young painter himself, does much more than simply get run over by Rothko's passions. As they go about the work of making art and for Rothko, it is very much work within the prescribed hours of 9 to 5 each day Ken absorbs Rothko's dense philosophical ideas about the paintings. Ken eventually turns Rothko's voluminous discourse back on the older painter.
For Rothko, the work contains an emotional, spiritual content that goes far beyond the floating, rectangular shapes buoyed on subtly shaded colors based on what else? red. Yet as one of the play's more memorable riffs demonstrates, "red" can be a rather vague word.
Somewhat like Rothko's work, the actors carefully layer the play's surprising physicality with specific nuance and meaning.
Director Jerry Montoya establishes an arresting pace for both the action and equally visceral dialogue, propelling this really sublime production.
What: John Logan's 2010 Tony Award-winning drama "Red" about the abstract expressionist master Mark Rothko and his contentious relationship with a young assistant while painting a commission for the Four Seasons restaurant.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 22
Where: B Street Theatre B3 Stage, 2711 B St., Sacramento.
Running time: One hour, 40 minutes; no intermission.
Information: (916) 443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org