STOCKBRIDGE >> Han van Meegeren was a little-known Dutch art dealer and mediocre painter. He made a substantial living from his greatest skill — art forgery; passing off his paintings as newly discovered works by 17th-century Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer.
In a July 2008 interview with National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, Edward Dolnick, author of a book about van Meegeren, "The Forger's Spell," said there were a number of reasons why van Meegeren selected Vermeer, not the least of them the fact that Vermeer produced a small body of work, far fewer than most of his contemporaries.
"So, for art historians, one of the great questions is: 'Where are all the others?'" Dolnick asked rhetorically. "So you might guess there were more and they were lost, which is what a forger would like you to guess. It might also be that he painted terribly slowly. No one knows."
Using a pizza oven and a plastic, bakelite, van Meegeren created authentic-looking original Vermeers which he sold to major art museums, collectors and dealers. He made a fortune — the equivalent of $60 million in only five years
His biggest accomplishment, and the one that undid him, was his fake "Christ With the Woman Taken in Adultery," which he sold to Germany's second in command, Hermann Goering.
"At this point, essentially no Vermeers had turned up in centuries," Dolnick said. "All of a sudden, they're turning up practically every six months and the collectors want in on this game."
Among those collectors was Goering.
"(Goering) takes looted paintings and trades 137 of them for this one Vermeer, which is going to become one of the jewels of his collection," Dolnick explained.
The Germans were meticulous record-keepers. Sifting through Goering's papers at the end of the war, members of the Allied Art Commission, charged with looking into appropriated art, found van Meegeren's name. In May 1945, during routine questioning at his house about the original owner of the painting, van Meegeren was arrested and charged with treason for collaborating with the Nazis by selling them a Vermeer.
At his trial, van Meegeren offered the only defense he could — that the work was his own, a forgery. He set about proving his claim by creating another Vermeer, over a period of six weeks, before a courtroom filled with the curious and the incredulous.
In using this story for her fascinating play, "The Bakelite Masterpiece" — which is being given a superbly crafted, emotionally and intellectually rich American premiere by WAM Theatre in collaboration with Berkshire Theatre Group at BTG's Unicorn Theatre — playwright Kate Cayley takes artist's license to dig beneath the hoopla of the media circus that surrounded van Meegeren's trial and focus, instead, on deeper personal and broader philosophical issues; played out as a tug-of-war between van Meegeren (a compelling David Adkins) and the no-nonsense head of the commission charged with investigating appropriated art, Captain Geert Piller (a haunted and haunting Corinna May), an art historian, resistance fighter during the war, and former director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Supported by all the evidence she says she needs ("I have your sales records, witnesses who swear you sold the paintings, there's nothing I don't have") Piller has come to van Meegeren's cell — a moody, dank, spare space, evocatively designed by Juliana van Haubrich and lit by Lily Essner — with his confession among the documents in her briefcase. All she needs is his signature before she can then issue orders for his execution. For her, this is not only a matter of country. There is a personal agenda as well.
What she is not prepared for is van Meegeren's assertion that the Vermeer in question is a fraud, a forgery he painted. She has seen his own originals — "grandiose portraits of minor politicians; church interiors in watercolor. You couldn't paint a Vermeer to save your life," she says to him with sneering contempt. In fact, that is precisely what he proposes — create an original Vermeer before her eyes, using her as his model. He provides a shopping list of materials, among them a supply of morphine pills — for his nerves, he says — and a bottle of vodka.
Wary, guarded, mistrustful, Piller nevertheless agrees.
For van Meegeren, the stakes are high. This is not simply a matter of life or death. This is about forgiveness and redemption.
"If you see this and say — yes, yes, that is more than the clever trick I expected, more than plastic, that is the faith and beauty of a Vermeer — you won't just save my life. My stupid life. An aging dope fiend with a little talent, teetering on the losing side of history. But if you say that is a true Vermeer, I will be redeemed by you," van Meegeren tells her.
It would be more than he deserves, he acknowledges.
"But some things," he says, "are given without being deserved."
Cayley has written an intellectually engaging, richly layered character study with profound themes, not the least of them having to do with masquerade and authenticity; mediocrity and genius; the nature of art; justice and retribution; hyopcrisy.
In some ways, "The Bakelite Masterpiece" treads "Amadeus" territory with one painfully mediocre artist seeking validation in the shadows of another artist's genius. But where Salieri ultimately is undone by a vanity that is inversely proportionate to his skills, van Meegeren (played by Adkins as a self-destructive, tortured soul with passionately engaged intellectual resources) comes into his own by becoming Vermeer.
Disputing a commonly held notion that an artist discovers himself in executing his art, van Meegeren tells Piller that he realized "very early that I had no self to discover.
"I was a derivative, shallow, second-rate painter," he says, "and everything I touched became an imitation of someone else. Why struggle in vain to realize your own genius when you can have someone else's?"
Van Meegeren sees his sale of a fake Vermeer to Goering as a patriotic act; a way of thumbing his nose at his country's invaders.
"What if I painted this Vermeer?" he asks a doubting Piller. "What if, in despair over the failure of my art and the occupation of my country, I fooled my Fascist clients into believing 'Christ With the Woman Taken in Adultery' was a rediscovered masterpiece in order to take them for fools? What if I manipulated these Nazis so spectacularly that my hoax could expose the most powerful and correspondingly humorless people in Europe to endless ridicule. What if you see before you the man who gave his suffering country the best story it's had in years?"
Under van Ginhoven's penetrating direction, May and Adkins navigate the Vermeer-like atmosphere of Cayley's play with consummate mastery — Adkins' passionate, at times possessed, van Meegeren exploding in volatile incandescence before the dying of the light posed against the icy, seemingly impenetrable shadows of May's Piller's restraint, her eyes reflecting telling internal dialogues.
What: "The Bakelite Masterpiece" by Kate Cayley. Directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven
With: David Adkins, Corinna May
Who: WAM Theatre and Berkshire Theatre Group
Where: Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St. (Route 7), Stockbridge
When: Now through Oct. 23. Evenings — Thursday through Saturday at 7. Matinees — Saturday and Sunday at 2
Running time: 1 hour 12 minutes (no intermission)
How: 413-997-4444; BerkshireTheatreGroup.org; in person at Colonial Theatre box office, 111 South St., Pittsfield