New Rep's "Bakelite Masterpiece": Throwing the First Stone

Benjamin Evett in "Bakelite Masterpiece"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Consider Lucifer” is a suggestion made by the major character in the brief play The Bakelite Masterpiece by Kate Cayley, which premiered in Toronto in 2014, was then co-produced by the Berkshire Theater Group and WAM in 2016, and is now being presented by New Rep in Watertown. Based on events concerning the infamous Dutch forger Han van Meegeren, it's a spare two-hander co-starring Benjamin Evett as Meegeren and Laura Latreille as the (fictional) character Geert Piller, an art historian who has been handed the task of determining the guilt or innocence of the painter accused of Nazi sympathies. Specifically, the forger is accused of selling a painting to Goering, ostensibly created by Vermeer; his defense will be that he in fact defrauded the Nazi with his own forgery and thus should instead be considered a hero. The title refers to his ingenious use of a bakelite spread brushed on the painting before baking it to simulate its aging process. Bakelite, an early plastic, was formed from the combination of phenol and formaldehyde, (the chemical name for which is polyoxybenzylmethyleneglycolanhydride, for short). All the action takes place in his prison cell in Amsterdam in 1946, as he proposes to prove his skills by creating a copy of a Vermeer that depicts Christ and a woman caught in adultery, using Piller as his model. As proposterous as this plot point seems, (and it does in fact become a difficult concept to accept even as some of Piller's issues are gradually revealed), playwright Cayley has fashioned an engrossing conversation and confrontation.

Laura Latreille & Benjamin Evett in "Bakelite Masterpiece"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Evett and Latreille (the latter seemingly battling a cold) were tremendous foils for one another. While the rhetoric sometimes bordered on the hyperbolic, they maintained their characters throughout the intermissionless, ninety-minute work, under the focused direction of Jim Petosa, the company's Artistic Director. Evett, in the showier role, displayed his familiar no-holes-barred delivery, in one of the most powerful roles of his estimable career, at times literally throwing himself into the fray. All of the technical elements contribute to the feeling of being hemmed in by history. The Set Design is by Christina Todesco, with Lighting Design by Scott Pinkney, Costume Design by Molly Trainer and Sound Design and Original Musical Composition by Dewey Dellay, each helping to forge belief in the incredible plot premise.

The painter/forger's urging to “consider Lucifer” (the angel who disobeyed and thus was thrown out of heaven and into hell) questions whether truth demands some doubt and whether being a “perfect fraud” is worse than a complete fool. He also alludes to the fact that the New Testament evangelists who wrote the Biblical story never revealed exactly what Christ wrote in the sand that effectively prohibited the crowd from stoning the woman; tradition maintains that it was an allusion to the sins of those all too ready to pick up the stone. And he further questions whether sometimes hate can be useful, as well as if forgiveness is always deserved. For those eager for irony, let them consider the program note that Meegeren's “original” forgeries have been replicated by still later forgers, including his own son. “Consider Lucifer” indeed.

Let she or he who is without guilt (including critics) throw the first stone, through April 8th.

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