Reviewed by Katherine Karlson
Billed as recounting “the greatest con job of the 20th century,” The Craftsman is the concluding offering of Chenango River Theatre’s abbreviated 2021 season. It provides a penetrating look into the dark reaches of the human psyche set against one of the most extraordinary incidents of art forgery in history.
In the Talk Back session following Friday’s opening performance (Oct. 8), playwright Bruce Graham said he was “blown away” when he learned the true story of Han van Meegeren, the Dutch art dealer who sold Hermann Göring a Vermeer that van Meegeren had himself skillfully painted and framed. To avoid a capital charge of treason, van Meegeren had to instead prove fraud, which he did by recreating a different Vermeer in real time during his trial.
The minimalist, gray-toned set echoes the desolation of the post-war Netherlands as it struggles to recreate a civil and just society based on the rule of law. It also mirrors the moral angst of its key protagonist, Joseph Pillel (Zach Curtis), a former Dutch resistance fighter given a difficult task not only outside his expertise (Pillel says he was a mechanical engineer who wants only to return to the design of a self-serve elevator) but one that would allow him to unleash a terrifying moral beast. He quotes Shakespeare — “revenge will know no bounds” — as he tests the weight of his newly-found power as a prosecutor to hunt down and punish Nazi collaborators before the Dutch leaders who were in exile return. Curtis tempers Pillel’s single-minded determination with a basic humanity through simple gestures and speeches; both drive home the point that this is no easy task for a man of conscience.
His opposite is the eponymous craftsman, van Meergeren, a mercurial, self-centered personality unhampered by basic morals. James Wetzel’s portrayal turns on a dime whether van Meergeren is trying to con some morphine out of his jailer or seduce the married woman, Johanna, who later becomes his wife. Van Meergeren’s desire for revenge is far less noble: As a self-taught artist with pretensions, his paintings of “pretty women” were disparaged in print by critics, most notably art historian Abraham Bredius, whom Michael Arcesi presents as a man held captive to his vanity and reputation as an art expert. It is this man to whom van Meergeren turns in court to uphold the authenticity of a fake Vermeer sold in an earlier scam, which also publicly humiliates Bredius. Van Meergeren boasts that the key to his success as a fraud is knowledge of human nature: “You only have to fool the most powerful” and “People hate to look foolish.”
Both men feel their respective hate as “a suffocating boulder on my chest.” Release comes in the famous trial in which Pillel can see justice of a topsy-turvy sort done and van Meergeren receives recognition as a true artist, whereby he achieves a backhanded immortality.
Other characters measure their actions against a secret desire for revenge. Joshua Sedelmeyer is Boll, a young Jewish state prosecutor, who escaped the death camps by working in a remote dairy farm. He confronts Johanna (Heidi Weeks) with the anti-Semitic content of letters written to her by Nazi sympathizers and her head-in-the-sand attitude about what was happening to her Jewish countrymen and women. His revenge is her final admission is that she failed to act when it might have done good. Weeks has the considerable talent to develop a female character who is not only a devoted wife to “the most arrogant man I’ve ever met,” but a woman who comes to admit her own failings as quickly as she acknowledges his.
Ted Nappi and Chris Nickerson, who juggles two roles, ably handle the supporting characters of the jailer Augustun, the restorer Geert Rotke and the judge, respectively. The ensemble performance takes the audience through the emotional highs and lows and eventually makes us ask ourselves, as one audience member mused aloud during intermission, “What is an acceptable level of collaboration?” Director Bill Lelbach, who steps down this year as CRT’s Artistic & Managing Director (Curtis will replace him), has given local theatregoers, who are delighted to be back in person, a truly lovely parting gift with this strong and satisfying production.
IF YOU GO: The Craftsman runs through Oct. 24 at the Chenango River Theatre, 991 State Highway 12, Greene. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 on Thursdays and $27 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; visit chenangorivertheatre.org or call 607-656-8499.
COVID protocols: Masks must be worn inside the theater at all times. Only Thursday, Oct. 21, is an “Open Audience” performance where proof of vaccination is not required.