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Theatre Review: "Seminar" and "Red"

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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The play on the B Street's Mainstage is a quarrelsome comedy called "Seminar," about a group of aspiring young writers, who are determined to become rich, famous writers. They hire a veteran editor for a private seminar. This experienced guy is highly sought after, but he's also known for challenging his students. When he evaluates the young writers, his assessment is typically nothing less than brutal.

EDITOR: "OK, I know who your narrator is. She is an over-educated, completely inexperienced, sexually inadequate girl who has rich parents who give her everything and who has nothing to say, so she sits around and she thinks about Jane Austen all the time, and I don't give a (****) about that person."

Along with his scathing student assessments, the veteran editor also offers pithy dictums about what fiction writers are really like, including this gem.

EDITOR: "Writers in their natural state are about as civilized as feral cats."

Now if you have experience with feral cats, you know they yowl at night… and so do the young writers in this play.

YOUNG WRITER: "YOU ARE INSANE!" (more noises).

Feral cats also tend to breed, indiscriminately. Again, not unlike the writers in this play, who pair off this way and that, leaving the others feeling furious or betrayed - feelings that are always played for laughs.

The comedy in "Seminar" is about smart people behaving badly. So think of this play as a ninety-minute naughty thrill ride.

Over in the B Street's second theater, the focus is on visual art with a play called "Red."  It's set in the chaotic studio of abstract painter Mark Rothko, who was big in the 1950s.

The middle-aged Rothko is opinionated, intellectually voracious, and a bit of a bully. He's also busy. So he hires a tenderfoot assistant - a young painter, who does menial chores like mixing the paint.

But there is one thing that Rothko cannot do - he can't stop talking. And before long, the cranky master invites the kid to look at some abstract works-in-progress, and respond.

Ken: "Are these ones done?"

Rothko: "They're in process. I have to study them now."

Ken: "Study them?"

Rothko, angrily: "Most of painting is thinking. Didn't they teach you that? Ten percent is putting paint on canvas. The rest is waiting."

This is also a play that can turn a three letter word like "red" into a breathtaking display of verbal free-association.

Rothko: "Atomic flash. Nick yourself shaving, blood in the Barbasol."

Ken: "Ruby slippers. Technicolor. That phone to the Kremlin on the President's desk."

Rothko: "Russian flag. Nazi flag. Chinese flag."

Ken: "Persimmons, pomegranates. Red light district, red tape. Rouge."

Rothko: "Lava, lobsters, scorpions." (volume trailing off)

There are lots of witty exchanges like this one in the Tony Award winning script, which brims with references to classical music, great books, and famous paintings.

As with "Seminar," in "Red: we see an established artist humiliating an eager kid. But here the confrontations are played for poignance, and the hurt feelings are more real.

So which show do I recommend more highly? It really depends on your mood. If you want a rowdy romp with randy writers, try "Seminar." But if you're craving a rocket ride into the dizzy heights of creativity, with barely a hint of sex, try "Red."

The B Street Theatre presents "Seminar" through September 23 and "Red" through September 22.

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