Is a painting merely brush strokes on a canvas? Or is it the hopes, dreams and fears of its creator and those who look upon it?

In the play “Red,” legendary abstract expressionist Mark Rothko (Joel Leffert) tells his assistant Ken (Anthony Johnston) that sending his paintings out into the world is akin to “sending a blind child into a room full of razor blades.” Anyone who has ever lovingly crafted something, no matter what the medium, knows this feeling.

How people view the arts — be it art, music, theater, dance, writing or any other creative outlet — is highly subjective and often skewed by public opinion.

Some look at Rothko’s celebrated paintings and see depth, movement and the struggle between life and death. Others see a red square, or a status symbol to decorate their walls with.

Whether you love or hate Rothko’s art, or are indifferent altogether, ultimately shouldn’t affect your appreciation of “Red,” now being performed at The Public Theatre.

The play provides a fascinating window into the man behind the art.

The 90-minute, one-act production is a passionate, verbal interchange about the true nature of art, deftly executed by Leffert and Johnston.

The debate starts out more of a monologue, with Rothko pontificating about art, Jackson Pollock and, in general, the increasing lack of humanity and arbitration in society. He points out that all too often our answer to any question asked is simply “fine.”

“Everything is not fine,” Rothko rails at Ken late in the play, sparking a climatic battle of wits.

Ken is put on the spot from the get-go, with Rothko asking him about one of his paintings, “What do you see?”

Johnston masterfully captured his character’s wide-eyed trepidation Friday, eliciting chuckles as he apprehensively stared out over the audience at a painting visible only to the two characters on stage. His character’s yearning to impress was entertainingly evident in every word and action.

Leffert proved a feverish devil’s advocate as the famed Russian-American painter (Sept. 25, 1903-Feb. 25, 1970). There was depth to his performance Friday, allowing the audience to gain insight into the inner workings of Rothko’s artistic process, and what may have shaped his art.

The two actors superbly marked the passage of two years over the duration of the play, with Johnston subtly growing his character’s confidence and Leffert revealing his character’s increasing fear that his paintings would never forgive him for leaving them in such a callous place as the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City.

Set designer Jennifer B. Madigan deserves recognition for her rendering of Rothko’s late 1950s New York City studio. Every detail was paid to recreate the setting, with vintage-styles jars and brushes, and complete with several large reproductions of Rothko’s art.

The odors of paint thinner and paint hung in the air Friday, giving a feeling of authenticity. And the actors didn’t just look at and talk about the art. They got paint-splattered while painting on stage.

“Red” is the brainchild of playwright John Logan, who has been in the spotlight recently as the screenplay writer for the 2011, Oscar-winning movie, “Hugo.” His portrayal of Rothko is intelligent and impassioned. The Public Theatre’s rendition lives up the play’s fiery title.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:

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