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PLAYGOER: Compass Rose Theater’s Red

     “What do you see?” Those are the first words of Red, John Logan’s Tony-winning look at famed abstract impressionist artist Mark Rothko, now being presented by Compass Rose Theater.

         While Rothko asks the question of his new assistant Ken and is referring to a painting, it could be asked of all of us as we witness this brief yet intense ­production.

         What do we see? We see a story that focuses on art’s place in our minds and our world. We see less-is-more staging by director James Bunzli that convinces us we’re in Rothko’s studio in the late 1950s, complete with the artist’s tools: paint, brushes, canvas, classical records and scotch. And we see two excellent actors, Gary Goodson as Rothko and Omar A. Said as his assistant Ken, deftly yet powerfully uncovering the motivations and conflicts of these two captivating characters.

         The focal point of the show is Rothko’s commissioned work on large murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. He justifies it, Ken challenges his boss’s artistic integrity, and the subsequent debate takes us on a winding path through art and how it mirrors life.

         Goodson’s Rothko is a brusque genius who refuses to play by the rules of the art world. His complete absorption in himself and his work make it nearly impossible for him to know or care about Ken. Goodson’s performance is passionate yet measured, just as the man himself was purported to be.

         Said gives Ken an appropriate air of idolatry, whose admiration for Rothko never wavers even as he begins to challenge Rothko’s views. But that admiration doesn’t stop Ken from engaging Rothko in deep and often pointed discussions about art, commercialism, and popularity.

         Goodson and Said are both excellent, brandishing Logan’s dialogue like expert swordsmen. The gradual move from the pedantic pronouncements of a teacher to a student, to the student’s on-target honesty, drives the show directly and forcefully. Ken’s recollection of his parents’ murder is especially poignant in the hands of Said, and Goodson’s reaction to the story perfectly captures Rothko’s lack of empathy for anything but his art. And, in line with Rothko’s observation that “Silence is so accurate,” one of the nicest scenes is when the two fervently yet quietly prepare a canvas for painting. It’s quietly emotional yet energetic, and despite being mimed rather than using actual paint, it demonstrates how good art is created by hard work.

         The same could be said for this production.

Runs through Feb. 16 at the Graduate Hotel’s Power House Building; about 80 minutes with no intermission. Tickets $41 ($36 military, seniors, $25 students) at www.compassrosetheater.org or 410-980-6662.