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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Bakelite Masterpiece
The focus of this play produced by WAM Theatre Company and Berkshire Theatre Group is the question of Van Meergeren's culpability as a collaborator: Is he guilty of treason for selling a real Vermeer or as merely a master forger? The penalty for treason is death and art professional Geert Piller is out for blood. She tries to force van Meergeren to admit his role in selling Holland's patrimony in order to placate the angry Dutch populace. Now freed from the shackles of Nazi occupation they are unforgiving and van Meergeren is an ideal scapegoat. He is a morphine-addicted, gin-swigging rogue who imagines himself as Lucifer —the most beautiful of God's creations who rebelled out of curiosity and was punished because he duped God.
Piller was present when the artist/forger unveiled the alleged Vermeer "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery." He says that he witnessed tears in her eyes as the then blue-gowned woman was moved by the lost masterpiece. Now, years later, dressed in a dowdy brown uniform, she's all business and ruthless in her belief that van Meergeren is an enemy of the Dutch homeland. He calls her a Nazi in a different uniform. Corinna May as Piller is unbendingly cold in her demands that he sign a confession which will condemn him. David Adkins as the slyly charming van Meergeren argues that he's really a hero who should be celebrated for making fools of the despised Nazis.
As the interrogation intensifies van Meergeren maintains his innocence so ardently that he penetrates Piller's defenses and casts doubt on her absolutism; doubts which she cannot put to rest. He convinces her that the Vermeer was created using an old canvas, correct paint and the plastic Bakelite. Torn between blind antagonism and reasonable scruples, Piller challenges van Meergeren to duplicate a Vermeer; he agrees and she will be the model. In the confines of the one-room prison the two opponents verbally spar over art and its meaning to the artist and the viewer.
Cayley's complex examination of art, truth and reconciliation challenges the audience with well- thought out, articulate disputes. Why does art matter so much and to whom? Van Meergeren and Piller express complicated and compelling evidence on many levels endeavoring to arrive at their respective versions of truth.
As van Meergeren paints, literally to save his life, Piller lets down her guard and a tentative relationship develops enough for the humanity of both characters to emerge. Is the vengeance she is seeking compatible with her own conscience? How will this trial affect her ability to move on if he is executed? Christ ‘s question expressed in the metaphorical and disputed painting — Who will cast the first stone?— resonates against the backdrop of war-torn Europe's search for justice and retribution.
WAM's artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven and the talents of Adkins and May move the play at a speed which controls the expository tendency of a philosophical duel. The arguments are coherent, subtly layered with nuances of deeper allusions to ethics, duty and accountability.
The grim cell designed by Juliana von Haubrich sets the scene immediately with crumbling masonry, barbed wire and broken windows. It is spare but as lit by Lily Fossner, a perfect cage which confines the two adversaries while admitting access to the mayhem of post World War Two Holland.
Costuming by Deborah A. Brothers is specific in creating the time and place where van Meergeren and Piller seek resolution. The lapis lazuli used by Vermeer and also in Piller's dress underscores the artistic elements in the play's penetrating and emotional aspects. Sound and music by Brad Berreidge add further dimension to this deeply absorbing play. The Bakelite Masterpiece offers a dynamic post-show conversation schedule with various scholars, authors and diplomats. Check WAM and BTG's webpage for the schedule.
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The Bakelite Masterpiece By Kate Cayley
Directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven
Cast: David Adkins (Han van Meergeren) Corinna May (Geert Piller)
Scene design: Julia Von Haubrich
Lighting design: Lily Fossner
Costume design: Deborah A. Brothers
Sound design: Brad Berridge
Stage Manager: Corey S. Cavenaugh
Running Time: Seventy-five Minutes; no intermission
Berkshire Theatre Group, Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA From 9/29/16; closing 10/23/16
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at the October 2nd performance
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