The assignment was straightforward, yet the responsibility felt heavy on the shoulders of Anne Henly. A graduate student in scenic design at the University of Minnesota, Henly was tasked with creating four or five replicas of Mark Rothko murals for Park Square Theatre's production of "Red," which has its Minnesota premiere Friday in St. Paul.

"It was a little overwhelming," Henly said last week as she appraised her work, stacked on the Park Square stage. "His work seemed so simple but there are so many layers."

Indeed, just as complexity defined the man. Rothko, who killed himself in 1970, was solemn and hard-working -- when he wasn't raging about the pop-art philistines who threatened his abstract aesthetic in 1959. He disdained commercialism and yet accepted a $35,000 commission to paint murals for the Seagram Building in New York. He carried a hard-edged social cynicism, yet allowed himself to be emotionally captive to his work.

"Rothko is very much trying to not perish from what's coming and what's happening in his life," said actor J.C. Cutler, who plays the artist. "His paintings spoke to him. They were living things."

John Logan's play originated in London in 2009, and then moved to Broadway. Alfred Molina, as Rothko, and Eddie Redmayne as the young assistant, Kent, were nominated for Tony Awards. Redmayne's victory was one of six Tonys -- including for Best Play.

As soon as artistic director Richard Cook secured the rights for Park Square, he talked to Cutler, and then chose Steven Johnson (Latté Da's "Beautiful Thing") to play Kent. A young artist hired as an assistant to Rothko, Kent is both a punching bag for Rothko's fulminations, and a menacing avatar of the generation that certainly will overtake the older man.

Struggle to survive

Rothko's reputation was well established by the time of the Seagram commission in 1959. A Russian émigré at age 10, he grew up in Portland, Ore., and attended Yale on scholarship. He drifted to New York to savor the life of a starving artist. His first exhibit, with other youngsters in 1928, bore the influence of German Expressionists and of surrealists such as Paul Klee.

By the early 1930s, Rothko had his first solo show in New York and soon his signature fascination with color emerged -- even though in style his work still reflected the earlier schools. Eventually, he moved into abstraction, with rectangles of color applied in thin glazes that pulsated with dimension.

"Rothko feels in his muscle and his gut each color," Cutler said.

While fellow abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock brawled his way through the Bohemian excesses of drink and late-night parties, Rothko worked long hours with rabbinical dedication.

The Seagram commission was huge -- worth about $2 million in today's money -- but Rothko's contempt for the rich elite who would dine in the building's Four Seasons restaurant left him radically conflicted.

"Rothko is at a point in his emotional life, his artistic life and his commercial life where he's struggling to survive and stay relevant on a lot of fundamental levels," Cutler said.

Put in terms of a color palette, Rothko fears "the black will swallow the red" -- signaling that moment when he is used up. As an actor, Cutler said, the intensity of that emotional crisis needs to rise.

There are a lot of ideas and interesting arguments about art, he said, "but if I don't have that visceral, chemical reaction to color, I can't play him."

Function over form

Director Cook asked Lance Brockman to design the production. Brockman, a longtime theater professor at the University of Minnesota, asked Henly to work as his assistant. She painted the faux Rothko murals and instructed Cutler and Johnson on the alchemy of mixing pigments, water and raw egg whites to make paint. The actors visited the U studio for tutorials on brush strokes, holding buckets and whisks, and especially handling canvases.

"You never touch the front and you don't lean them on top of each other," Henly said.

And even though she feels the burden of audience expectations that she approximate Rothko, Henly has the perspective of a theater artist: Work functions within a performance. Once this show closes, her paintings are likely headed for the trash -- unless someone wants to take them home.

"It's not that I'm OK with it, but that's how theater works," she said. "I have to come to terms with the fact that all the work I'm doing is going in a dumpster."

Ouch. Rothko, cover your ears.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299