The Bakelite Masterpiece, by Kate Cayley, directed by Richard Rose, Tarragon Theatre’s Extraspace, running to Nov. 30.
For most of its 75-minute running time, The Bakelite (pronounced “back-a-light”) Masterpiece, the two-hander playing at Tarragon Theatre’s Extraspace at 30 Bridgman Ave., is an enjoyable night out, with immersive staging and crackling dialogue delivered by actors at the top of their game.
The central conflict is between Han van Meegeren (played by Geordie Johnson), a Dutch painter accused of treason for selling a painting by photorealist Johannes Vermeer to German occupiers during WWII, and his guard, Geert Piller (Irene Poole), who was moved to tears at the painting’s unveiling and refuses to believe van Meegeren’s explanation: the Vermeer was a forgery he painted himself.
“Consider Lucifer. Lucifer!” van Meegeren pleads to the audience during the opening. “The brightest angel of them all. One who dares to rival God — to imitate God’s glory.”
Admitting that he possesses no artistic voice of his own, van Meegeren learned early to prefer a thief’s notoriety over a starving artist’s obscurity. Besides, it was a great joke to play on the Nazis.
“Just imagine God’s face when he realizes he’s been betrayed, duped,” he says. “His anger is terrible, because he’s been humiliated.
“And there’s nothing worse than looking like a fool.”
This much is drawn from real life: van Meegeran was a Dutch artist who sold a forged Vermeer to a Nazi commander and was put on trial for treason. He avoided the death penalty by producing another forgery in court.
Writer Kate Cayley uses this setup, with the Piller character posing in a blue dress for the new painting, to explore our own desire to know the truth versus what the “truth” often turns out to be.
After all, despite the apparent evidence in front of her, Piller refuses to believe van Meegeran, because…
Well, actually the audience is never told just why Piller rejected van Meegeran’s explanation so vehemently. But I was so entertained I felt I could do without that bit of information, and didn’t even bother asking during a Q&A that followed the show, where Poole explained her character’s motivation.
Despite Piller’s Jewish heritage, she chose to protect art during the war instead of her parents, who were sent to a concentration camp, we were told, and accepting that one of the paintings she fought to protect is fake would mean accepting that her choice might have killed her parents.
That Piller was Jewish and her parents sent to a concentration camp came across in the play, but her bullheaded determination to believe van Meegeran’s painting was the real McCoy did not, nor did her shame upon finally realizing she’d been fooled.
Van Meegeran, meanwhile, has a morphine addiction that’s initially played for laughs, then becomes a character tic (he’s often seen popping pills into his mouth), but which never seems to affect the way he acts or talks, blunting the ending’s impact when it suddenly needs to matter.
As the lights went down, I was left with a feeling of “Huh?”. It didn’t negate the 75 minutes of theatre I’d just enjoyed, but it did prevent its themes from snapping into focus. (The Q&A did, but that shouldn’t be the job of a Q&A.)
I couldn’t immediately tell if these shortcomings were the fault of the writing, the acting or the directing, but considering The Bakelite Masterpiece was workshopped over a two-year period I’m inclined to believe the blame can be spread around.
Too bad. Because, except for that untidy ending, all four did great work.
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