Theater review: Masterpiece

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Mimicry has always been at the core of great art, but at a certain point, the artistry can go too far. Successfully imitate the President on Saturday Night Live and you’re on the road to superstardom. Do it in the flesh – or even on the POTUS Blackberry account – and you’re facing jail time. Meir Ribalow’s Masterpiece, now entering its final weekend at Armour Street Theatre in an audacious Davidson Community Players premiere, reminds us of these key distinctions, all the while probing the questions raised when an unknown painter successfully passes himself off as a great artist.

The artist Ribalow has chosen is from recent history. Han Van Meergren didn’t copy any of Johannes Vermeer’s scant existing work. No, he painted what he and an accomplice asserted were newly discovered works by the great Dutch artist. What he mastered en route to fooling the experts – in Ribalow’s play, the authentication is deliciously verified by the very same art critic who disdainfully dismissed Van Meergren’s own works – was the ability to make a freshly painted canvas look 300 years old. So the whole question of whether the fakes are great art is muddied by the fact that every one of them is an original.

Davidson Community’s production, richly enhanced by projections of all the artworks in question – Vermeer’s, Van Meegren’s, and the Van Meegren fakes – fully captures the strengths and weaknesses of Ribalow’s script under Martin Thompson’s nuanced direction. The whole storyline has the potential of attaining the magnificence of Crime and Punishment, but for me, the Act 1 exposition more faithfully echoed the tedium of The Guiding Light. It is only when Ribalow focuses in on the ethical and aesthetic issues raised by Van Meegren’s career in Act 2 that Masterpiece threatens to live up to its title.

Scot Slusarick makes the fire that burns within Van Meegren flicker with both sacred and profane flames, a beautifully balanced intensity; and the blustery Charles Muller ultimately succeeds in projecting the implacable pomposity of cocksure art critic Abraham Bredius. As Han’s wife Jo, Ashley Stowe shuttles convincingly enough between romantic loyalty and an accomplice’s anxiety as the huge financial benefits of her husband’s success are counterbalanced by their ever-mounting criminal liabilities. Grounding the whole scandal is Lou Dalessandro as the shambling Columbo-like Investigator Wooning, whose pursuit of the truth turns this drama upside-down.

It’s always charming to attend shows at Armour Street, where homemade cookies are often part of the intermission. Masterpiece supplies plenty of intellectual protein to complement the sugar.

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