PITTSFIELD — “!SOMEONE IS IN THE DUTCH ROOM. INVESTIGATE IMMEDIATELY!!.”
A dot matrix printer spit out the silent alarm over and over again in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990. The alarm went unanswered. The greatest art heist in U.S. history was taking place; the security guards were handcuffed and bound with duct tape in the basement of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The robbery would last 81 minutes; 13 art works worth $500 million dollars were taken. Among the stolen items were “Christ In The Storm On The Sea Of Galilee,” the only known seascape painted by Rembrandt, and “The Concert,” one of only 36 paintings by Johannes Vermeer.
The art has never been recovered. The FBI’s main suspects George Reissfelder and Lenny DiMuzio — both died within a year of the theft. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum continues to offer a $10 million reward for information leading to the return of the items.
The art heist, the resulting investigation, along with the web of theories concerning the whereabouts of the artwork and possible connections to Whitey Bulger, the Boston Mafia and the IRA are the focus of a new four-episode Netflix docuseries, “This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist,” being released on the streaming service April 7.
“I think everyone in Massachusetts knows there was a robbery, but not exactly what happened,” said director Colin Barnicle during a phone interview with The Eagle. “I always thought it was a ‘Thomas Crown Affair’ type heist.”
The true-crime docuseries is a first for Barnicle and his brother, Nick Barnicle, who is one of the series’ producers. Their production company, Barnicle Brothers Inc., is best known for its sports and music documentaries, including the Emmy Award-winning “Billy Joel: New York State of Mind.”
“It’s been a slow process,” Colin Barnicle said. “Bits and pieces were shot as early as 2016. It’s been five or six years building up to this point.”
After years of research, visiting courts, tracking down former Gardner Museum employees and shooting interviews — the production was ready to begin it’s final phase of filming at the start of 2020. As COVID-19 began to spread across the globe, it became imperative the production find locations to film its evocations (reenactments).
“We were four years into the production prior to shooting these scenes; outside of what we needed to shoot in Boston, we needed a controllable area to shoot in. There’s not many places like that in the Northeast,” he said.
Barnicle turned to associate producer Alex Hill for help. Hill, in turn reached out to his mother, Kate Maguire, artistic director and CEO of the Berkshire Theatre Group.
“This series would not have happened without the Berkshire Theatre Group’s help,” Barnicle said. “They took the ball and ran with it. Every evocation that didn’t happen at the Gardner Museum was filmed in the Berkshires on the campus of the Berkshire Theatre Group. Their crew built all of the sets, making sure the actual proportions were correct. They provided the wardrobe, lighting, provided actors for the main parts and even cast the extra parts.”
Filming in the Berkshires happened mid-February 2020, just weeks before Gov. Charlie Baker shut down most of Massachusetts because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Working with the Barnicle Brothers was a dream come true for Berkshire Theatre Group. We were able to utilize each of our campuses, build sets, provide technical support, bring in local actors, and work with a really creative and professional team led by director Colin Barnicle,” Maguire said in an email.
Actor Chris Vecchia, who’s worked with BTG for the last decade and last appeared in 2019’s “A Christmas Carol,” portrayed Reissfelder, one of two men, the FBI says, gained entry into the Gardner Museum by posing as police officers. The other thief, DiMuzo, was played by BTG actor Joshua Bishoff.
“At the Unicorn Theatre, the entire stage was turned into an office. Standing on the stage, you still had this theater vibe. It’s amazing to see how differently it looks through the camera’s eye. It looked like an entirely different scene,” Vecchia said, adding that another stage was transformed into Reissfelder’s apartment, where he allegedly hung one of the stolen Manet paintings on his wall.
Vecchia also spent time filming in the basement of the Colonial Theatre, where fellow BTG actor Brandon Lee, as security guard Rick Abath, was handcuffed and bound with duct tape.
“Rick’s the guy who’s gone down in history as the man who let the thieves in. It’s a weird series of strange decisions, at least for Rick — that’s assuming he’s not involved — that led to him being tied up in the basement,” said Lee, who appeared in last summer’s “Godspell.” “I spent the better part of one of my days in handcuffs and duct tape. They used double-sided tape so they could rap it around my head and not have it stick to my wig or face. Because of the duct tape, I could only see with the bottom third of my range of vision in a dark basement, handcuffed. It definitely was one of the stranger days of an acting job.”
Vecchia spent time filming in Boston, as well; shooting outside the Gardner Museum and driving around the streets of Boston.
“When we were in Boston, the street we were filming on was shut down. I was playing a thief dressed as a Boston Police officer, so I had on a uniform,” he said. “During a break, I was standing at the end of the street, when a police officer drove up to the light at the corner. He looked at me and gave me a professional nod. That’s how professional this production was; everything I was wearing down to the hat and badge was so authentic a real police officer thought I was an officer manning the film set.”
The time spent shooting in the Berkshires — about 20 setups — made it possible for the docuseries to wrap up filming prior to parts of the country going into a pandemic-induced lockdown, Barnicle said.
So what can viewers expect from the docuseries?
“We decided to keep it simple and enjoyable for everyone, especially those who are hearing about this crime for the first time. We were interested in giving an accurate look at the crime scene and what went down there,” Barnicle said.
Because of that focus, he said about 90 percent of the research that was done doesn’t appear in the series.
“We had four episodes to work with. We needed a beginning, middle and an end for an unsolved, unadjudicated case with no paper trail,” Barnicle said. “Everyone has a theory about what happened.”