Arts theater review

A woman in the blue dress

A touching story about the power of meaningful connections through the art of forgery

The Bakelite Masterpiece
Written by Kate Cayley
Directed by Jim Petosa
Mosesian Center for the Arts
March 17 – April 8

    Accused of selling a long-lost Vermeer painting to the Nazis, Han van Meegeren (Benjamin Evett) awaits his judgement. When his jailer, Geert Pillar (Laura Latreille), tells him that he would be killed for his treasonous crime, he makes her an irresistible offer. If he can make an exact replica of Vermeer’s “A Woman in a Blue Dress,” he can clear his name and walk away a free man. If not, then Pillar has the right to kill him. Thrilling and nail-biting, The Bakelite Masterpiece won’t wait for you to give it your full attention. It steals it away.

Lights creep into the room, revealing prison cells adorned with painting frames. While they do, a violin begins squeaking out notes. It’s unsettling and otherworldly. We see a long stride, a back turned away from us, a beam of light that paints a man in its sickly white; enter Han van Meegeren, the man who fooled the Nazis.

“Why struggle to find your genius when you can take someone else’s?” van Meegeren asks. A wicked smile appears on his face as he looks up from the outlandish stage. Its walls extend out into the audience, forcing us all into the cell with the prisoner. The platform that he stands on appears to lean forwards, as though there is nothing he can hide from us. Under the direction of Cristina Todesco, the scenic designer, the stage appears to detach itself from time to tell a unique story in itself.

A raging narcissist, van Meegeren makes constant references to Lucifer and his descent from Heaven. Almost as if to make himself to also be a tragic figure, he prods the audience into perceiving him as a sort of fallen angel as well. Evett makes a wonderful sociopath in this production. Never have I both hated and loved a character as much as Evett’s van Meegeren. He is cunning, yet flawed and desperate, yet lonely.

But one cannot comment on the strength of the characters without also looking at Geert Pillar, the other character in the play. Latreille takes on the role of an art historian tasked with interrogating van Meegeren on his involvement with the Nazis. She’s absolutely against van Meegeren’s silver tongue.

You’ll want to see these two characters duke it out, letting their wits do the talking. It’s one power struggle after another in this play as Pillar and van Meegeren try to assert their dominance in this tiny prison cell. Nothing extraordinary will interest you in this play because there are no sword fights to be found nor any flashy special effects. However, the mundane things will: the way that Pillar turns away from her prisoner at every turn; the sadness in van Meegeren voice as he talks about how God cast Lucifer into Hell; the way that these two characters need each other more than they care to admit.

It’s incredibly refreshing to see more older roles being shown in performances nowadays. Too often do we see blockbuster movies of modern day Adonises, and it’s not often enough that we see more stories being told by regular people. Even more refreshing is the dimensionality that Latreille possesses with this character. She isn’t an authoritative woman — she’s a real life person with crushed hopes and constant despair. Underneath the tension that defines this work of art is a story about people, one in which hurt people really do hurt people.

To say that this piece is exciting would not do it justice. Real people exist in the walls of that theater room. They get hurt, only to pick themselves up to trudge through another day. They see unspeakable horrors but brush them off in the hopes that tomorrow will be different. And they cling onto the smallest things to give their lives purpose. These are the things that the playwright, Kate Cayley, wants to push onto her audience. Ultimately, this is what Jim Petosa, the director, wants to transmute into another beautiful work of art at the Mosesian Center.