Entertainment » Theatre

The Craftsman

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Dec 8, 2017
Ian Merrill Peakes
Ian Merrill Peakes  

Late last month, a portrait of Jesus by Leonardo da Vinci, the Salvator Mundi sold at Christie's for $450 m. even as some experts continue to question whether it is an art forgery. What is real or a possible fake is the literal and allegorical subject of Bruce Graham's play "The Craftsman" now in an extended premiere run at the Lantern Theater.

It is based on real events of art forger Han van Meegeren being tried for treason after WWII. The play unfolds as hero of the Dutch resistance Joseph Pillel (Ian Merrill Peakes) and now head of the provisional government is arresting suspected Nazi collaborators. He is holding van Meegeren (Anthony Lawton), a former painter, now wealthy art dealer, and is building a case for treason against the dealer who allegedly sold masterpieces by 16th Dutch master artist Johannas Vermeer to Hitler and Hermann Goering- proof that he was a Nazi collaborator.

Van Meegeren is being held at the Ministry of Justice instead of a prison, because, Pillel informs him, he wouldn't last ten minutes. Aside from a mob clamoring for his head outside, van Meegeren is also in the throes of morphine withdrawn, his 'medicine' confiscated by Pillel to get him to confess. Meanwhile, van Megereen's wife Johanna (Mary Lee Bednarek) pleads to see her husband and refuses to be intimidated, even as Pillel tries to brand the couple as anti-Semitic and traitorous to their country.

The plot thickens in Graham's finely crafted flashback mise-en-scenes, as van Meegeren is revealed as a failed painter whose career was ruined early on by Abraham Bredius (Paul L. Nolan) an art scholar and leading critic, branding his talent that of a mere craftsman, not a true artist.
Themes of deception, vengeance, cruelty, anti-Semitism, homophobia are Graham's substantive dramatic template. And some humor. Van Megereen has more than a few choice words for critics (and you wonder if Graham might too) as the arbiters of what constitutes art via the character Bredius and Nolan never goes over the top as the boorish (& prickly) critic.

Graham often writes plays set in Philadelphia and this is a welcome departure. As entertaining as his recent bio-play "Rizzo" was (about Philly's infamous former mayor) which had both a pasted together formulaic quality. In contrast, "The Craftsman" is both fascinating history and character study within Graham's tight narrative arc.

The fact that Bredius is vilified for cruising the docks to pick up sailors for sex, might be an excuse for grotesque stereotypes that prevailed in that era, even in Amsterdam. But Graham, admirably, doesn't take cheap shots on that score. Even with this glancing peek into the gay world in Amsterdam after WWII.

Pillel knows all about Bredius private life and quite seriously asks van Meegeren if he hates homosexuals, having previously attack Bredius for being queer. "I don't have problems with homosexuals."

Lawton turns in a tour de force performance as the obsessive, rakish van Megereen -- petty, passionate, charming, manipulative, with lots to hide -- until circumstances strip away his delusions, artistic and otherwise. Peakes gives a volcanic, soul searching as Pillel, at times barely able to control his rage against what he witnessed in the war.

Dan Hodge is a great foil as Boll, Pillel's pragmatic Jewish prosecutor who keeps him in check. Bednarek is powerfully subtle Johanna, as she tries navigate perilous emotional and political waters to save Han, even as she faces up to her own moral failings. Rounding out the cast, Brian McCann is pitch perfect switching off in multiple roles as the brutish guard, a forensic art appraiser and a judge.

M. Craig Getting directs this fine ensemble cast with invention and beautiful pacing of complex material. The handsome production design by Meghan Jones evokes the period and is enhanced by Janelle Kauffman's art panel 'Vermeer' projections.

-The Lantern Theater's premiere run of Bruce Graham's "The Craftsman" runs through Dec. 17 at St. Stephen's Theater - 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia, PA. For further information visit www.lanterntheater.org | or call (215) 829-0395. --

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.


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