This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
The lives of artists, especially painters, are very tempting to put on stage. Not only do you have the inherent conflict that comes with tempestuous artistic personalities, but you also have a singular visual element to give the show.
This season, one of the most anticipated Broadway plays is Red, a play from the Donmar Warehouse about the artist Mark Rothko. Written by John Logan (a screenwriter whose credits include Gladiator and The Last Samurai) the play was a huge hit in London. Alfred Molina, last seen here in LA as an excellent Lopakhin in the Taper's Cherry Orchard a few years back, plays Rothko, the abstract expression painter who killed himself in 1970.
Closer to home, a more novel way do to a stage biography of a famous artist is wrapping up its brief run this weekend: the Los Angeles Premiere of Charles Mee's 2001 play, bobrauschenbergamerica.
Rauschenberg, as anyone who saw MOCA's great 2006 retrospective, jolted the art world with his combines—lively works that mixed sculpture and painting made from various pieces of found materials, like "Monogram" which featured a stuffed goat with a tire around its neck, or "Bed," a frame that hung on the wall with a quilt and sheets painted instead of canvas.
The playwright of bobrauschenbergamerica, Charles L. Mee, often approaches playwriting in a similar fashion that Rauschenberg made art: taking bits of different text and making theater as a sort of collage. One of the best examples of this work, Mee's Berlin Circle, was an update of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, set in 1990's Berlin, which took its dialogue from sources as varied as the biographies of Warren Buffet and Andy Warhol.
The director of bobrauschenbergamerica is Bart DeLorenzeo, who directed a wonderful production of Berlin Circle 10 years ago at the Evidence Room. When you walk into the theater, Marina Mouhibian's set for looks perfect: a glorious assortment of junk and random household items.
Then you hear the sounds of Aaron Copeland's Rodeo and the play begins. A woman gives a black-and-white slide show presentation about someone who we think could be her son, who might be Bob Rauschenberg. Then a man in a shower cap starts singing into an egg. A bathtub rolls on stage with a no parking sign and by the time a man in a chicken suit walks out and asks "why did the chicken cross the stage?" its very clear that the whole play is a sort-of theatrical combine.
For an artist like Rauschenberg, this type of treatment makes much more sense than a standard biographical narrative. And someone like Mee, who's work often soars when its non-linear and abstract, would seem to be the perfect theater artist to render Rauschenberg's life and work in stage collage.
For whatever reason though, bobrauschenbergamerica just doesn't hold the stage. It looks right, the tone seems right, and it sounds right, but watching it offers little stimulation or insight into the artist. Anyone who's seen Mee's Wintertime at the La Jolla Playhouse or even, his riffs on Greek legends at Santa Monica's City Garage knows how engaging his ready-made texts can be. Here with bobrauschenbergamerica, the ideas, the fragments don't add up. Mee's magic, and Rauschenberg's, just isn't present. Instead of coming together to form something special, bobrauschenbergamerica just feels like random bits of theatrical flotsam.
One of the most famous portraits of an artist in recent years was Ed Harris's turn as Jackson Pollack in his 2000 bio-pic. Harris is a wonderful actor. One wishes he were making his return to the LA stage in a role more "artistic" than the car salesman he plays in Neil LaBute's monologue Wrecks. As drama, it's a clunker, but Harris is an actor worth seeing live.
Wrecks runs through March 7 at the Geffen; bobrauschenbergamerica continues through this Sunday at [inside the Ford].
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Banner and other images from bobrauschenbergamerica: Debi Landrie. Image of Ed Harris in Wrecks: Michael Lamont