The Bakelite Masterpiece, by Kate Cayley. Directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
David Adkins and Corinna May
"What if truth demands doubt?"
Dutch artist Han van Meegeren was arrested at the end of the second world war for selling a Dutch treasure, a painting by Vermeer, to Field-Marshall Hermann Goering. In prison he claimed that the he had not betrayed his people but rather had abused his abusers by selling a forgery, not a real Vermeer, that he himself had painted. He was not initially believed and he stood trial on grounds of treason. One of his investigators was a man named Joop Piller, a garment worker who later joined the Dutch resistance and spent the war years finding refuges for Jewish children.
Coenraad Blomendahl, a classical cellist living in Toronto Canada, is the nephew of Joop Piller. In 2013 he saw a play about all this at the Tarragon Theater, directed by Richard Rose, and was amused to find his uncle turned into a woman called Geert Piller, the name of his own aunt who died during the war in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The play, Kate Cayley's "The Bakelite Masterpiece" is now playing at the Unicorn Theatre, the smallest of the Berkshire Theatre Group's venues, in Stockbridge, MA, produced by WAM Theatre and directed by Kristen van Ginhoven. The husband and wife acting team of David Adkins and Corinna May are playing Han and Geert and their scenes have an extra-sexual charge to them which provides some needed electricity to this play about the intensity of art and its proofs.
Vaguely reminisicent of a 2003 play which was seen in Pittsfield in 2007, "A Picasso" by Jeffrey Hatcher, "...Bakelite..." works with a wonderful double premise: the forger is a mediocre painter who could not possibly have created a reasonable facsimile of Vermeer's work, and the painting when first displayed created a major emotional reaction in the woman now prosecuting him for selling it. In truth van Meegeren was a well respected painter who turned to forgery because he could and in 1942 sold a known fake for a record amount at the time: 1.6 million Dutch Guilders.
Cayley has created a very interesting play, moving back and forth in the heads of both characters starting the play deep in his subconscious mind and ending the play in hers. In between the two spar and bicker, battle and make an uncertain sort of love through their mutual love of portraiture and painting. To prove he has done the forgery he compels her to pose for him so that, in the darkness of his cell, he can create a new painting in Vermeer's style. When she agrees, it is instantly clear that this battle cannot be lost, and the outcome seems certain.
Other elements intrude, as elements do and in a two-character play those outside forces are partially generated from within the walls that surround the combatants. When two actors with strong voices and dynamic bodies confront one another, as May and Adkins do here, the resulting tension can only lead to emotional outbursts. In this case history repeats itself once too often and the most touching moment of the play belongs to the actress in this case. Corinna May is a champion when it comes to underplaying the strongest moments and her restraint here is very telling.
Adkins has the best part, really, for he has the dynamics of the play to work with. Van Meegeren is alone and without friends or allies. Hated for his supposed actions, he can only crouch and think and talk to himself about life and circumstances. When confronted by accusations and a demand for his signature on a bogus confession of guilt, he is instantly charged, driven by a lightning bolt of energy that carries him through the days to come in this new relationship with Geert. Using every ounce of charm available to him, Adkins' artist seduces a cold-hearted, professional woman with specific memories of her that he has never forgotten - a story that is hard to believe, actually - and gradually he melts away her indignation. Adkins plays this section of the play with the grace of a stalking panther turning his prisoner character into the emotional jailer. It's lovely to watch him do it.
May's role gives her the tougher job, however. She begins gruff and strong, morally male and on the edge of abusive in her attitude toward the prisoner she has come to demanding reasonable actions in the light of his former actions. Her stiffness must surely give way to more feminine responses and attitudes in his presence, and these she resists even when giving in to those impulses. Her entire body displays these mixed attitudes as she moves about the cell, as she controls his needs and seeks responses he cannot give her. When she gives in to the impulse to pose for him it is with a frigid air and a rigid manner which, over time, becomes a placid acceptance of the affair that is not sexual but has the same sort of charge to it. For him this cat-and-mouse play is merely rubbing two sticks together, but for her it is controling flames that must not be allowed to spring forth.
Together the two actors on stage create a major world, crowded with on-lookers, will-wishers and obstacle-hurdlers. The characters the author has given them to play provide literal flying carpets on which they ride winds of creativity. I think it is safe to say that they improve the play immensely with their acting. The play has strengths that can lend them the possibilities they need to leave their audience with a sense of almost holistic transference. There is a dynamic between the two actors that transforms their characters into recreated people rather than just actable characters. In the light of the true story, of two men instead of a man and a woman, this is a remarkable achievement.
van Meegeren at his forgery trial, 1947, with one of his Vermeer's behind him.
Director Kristen van Ginhoven has worked well with her actors, giving us very honest glimpses into the harsher needs of both Geert and Han. Her use of the awkward physical relationship shared by the two people on stage reinforces time and time again the situation that could otherwise be easily lost in the invasion of real art into the picture. Art transforms. That is what Art does. In this play the very astute director prevents that from happening to a great degree though it could easily happen. In doing so she preserves the intent of the playwright to not forge a strong bond between them. It is partially that strain imposed on these actors that makes the dynamic of the play so willful and pertinent.
The physical production aids the director immensely. Juliana Von Haubrich's set is just dirty and dingy enough to feel awkwardly real which is just what Adkins' von Meegeren needs to keep him down. Deborah A. Brothers costumes do the same for May's Geert Piller. Her blue dress, so in keeping with Vermeer's early plaintive use of lapis lazuli in his color scheme, is 1940s to perfection. Lily Fossner's single palate of white light provides us with a need to imagine the colorful world the artist creates in his bland environment, the cell. Brad Berridge provides musical inspiration for the two in their concrete cage studio and also gives us a bit of the world outside which helps immensely.
This is a fascinating little play at 72 minutes; it feels longer due to the happenings on stage. Someone afterward suggested that these two actors should play this on a double bill with Hatcher's "A Picasso", a two-act play that would swell the evening to a full three hours. It might be worth it at that, two views of artists caught in a wwII dilemma. For now, this one is all we have and we should make the best of it while we can. We should see it. At least once.
The Bakelite Masterpiece, a WAM Theatre production,plays through October 23 at the Unicorn Theatre on the Larry Vaber Stage, located at 6 East Street, Stockbridge, MA. For information and tickets call the box office 413-997-4444 or go on line at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.