A whale of a tale
COLUMBIA, Mo 5/7/15 (Review) -- It's not an overstatement to say Elizabeth Braaten Palmieri's new play, The Con-Artist, tackles the biggest issue facing not just Columbia or the United States, but the world.
Her three-person Greenhouse Theatre Project cast deftly asks: What is the value of integrity? a question larger even than asking the value of truth.
Integrity is the willingness to defend truth. Without it, we can have no truth.
On the side of integrity, Braaten Palmieri -- wearing multiple hats on this outing, most notably playwright -- gives us Adam Dooey (think Dewey Decimal System, the library knowledge organizer).
The "registrar of the Minnesota Museum of Art" tracking an art forger, a rambunctious Scott McDonald plays Dooey as a modern-day Captain Ahab, Herman Melville's fanatical seafarer who loses his life to a whale with an attitude.
Standing in for the whale -- and in Dooey's righteous eyes, mistruth, falsehood, and the un-American way -- Ian Matthew Sobule is Michael Lirette, a quirky, aging schizophrenic with serious mother issues who fills his lonely days with masterful acts of -- art forgery!
The play is based on the real-life story of Mark Landis, whose middle name -- Augustus -- suggests the high hopes his mother must have had. Landis' obsession with fakery is the ultimate fall from grace: the boy who would have been a Caesar becomes the Man Who Will Never Be King.
Like Landis, Lirette can't bear the thought of making real art, watching a real person long enough to paint them. "You see their secrets and their fears," he sighs. "That makes me uncomfortable. It scares me."
Aptly staged at the Columbia Art League's downtown gallery, The Con Artist begins with Dooey circling his unlikely whale: the pinched, oblivious Lirette, on his own unlikely -- and ironic -- quest for integrity. He spends his days forging art and his nights watching classics of televised righteousness like Father Knows Best, Lassie, and Hawaii Five-0.
"Oh to be Steve McGarrett," Lirette muses to his psychotherapist, about the Honolulu detective chief who epitomized truth and justice during Five-0's 12-year run.
In therapy sessions that unveil what ails him, Lirette draws guffaws when he tells his therapist that his bowel movements are normal -- and pathos when he wearily recounts disturbed sleep, or how his life's work is little more than a copy of greatness.
"Anyone can do what I do!" he insists.
But no one can do it as well as Lirette, which escapes the therapist, played by Braaten Palmieri with impatience and worse -- indifference -- to her patient's peculiar plight.
McDonald as Dooey warns the audience early on that all is not what it appears.
Just as we're getting used to Sobule's nerdy, cloistered momma's boy (Lirette lives in his dead mother's house, where he regularly talks with her ghost), the actor transforms: into a cross between a wily James Spader character and Serge, the flamboyantly gay, image-over-substance art dealer from Beverly Hills Cop.
At first, it's not clear if this is a new character. But after the forger disguises himself again and again, we realize that not only does he make the fakes, he distributes them, too. The art is fake, and so are the characters Lirette invents to peddle it, giving his flawless "masterpieces" away to museums and galleries.
That's right: Lirette doesn't sell his forgeries. He "donates" them. "It's the only time I feel respected," he tells his therapist. What's the harm in that, right?
Plenty. Even when Dooey informs museum curators they've been had -- after discovering the same painting at three different venues simultaneously -- they balk. Who wants to admit they've been conned?
But more insidiously, who wants to give back a free million dollar -- or $30 million -- masterpiece, forged so well no one can tell the difference?
Creepy that, and it's part of what makes the play -- a mere hour long -- work. Braaten Palmieri insinuates creepiness into every part of Lirette's character, from his hunched, psycho posture to his self-deprecating air -- or is it airs?
Is he as humble as he appears, or the most egotistical jerk on the planet?
Dooey knows it's the latter and obsesses over outing Lirette. "Fuck the integrity of the piece! It's a fake!" he yells at a curator making excuses about her reluctance to dump Lirette's latest.
It's the supreme frustration of the truth see-er, that nobody can see the truth but you, and it drives Dooey to drink, divorce, and pontificate in tragicomic asides on Melville, waving a copy of Moby Dick.
Heady stuff all this, but Braaten Palmieri peppers the play with plenty of fun, including some unexpected audience involvement this review won't spoil.
As a phony Irish priest who doesn't even bless himself correctly, Lirette overpowers Braaten Palmieri's skeptical St. Louis gallery owner, in a hysterical take on baptism and showy self-righteousness.
But the playwright and her team save the supercharged fun for last, wrapping it in loud-but-lovable NYC gallery owner AnHa Rockefeller, so fake she's delightfully original, and the only person Lirette has ever met (beside his mother) who believes in the man behind the curtains.
A pliably blonde combination of Anna Wintour -- the imperious Vogue editor -- and Edith Head, the outspoken fashion designer -- Braaten Palmieri's AnHa has multiple A-Ha! moments about her latest gift to the art world: a con artist!
"Imitation is the New Innovation!" she exclaims, pleased as a peacock with this original insight.
"You're celebrating a liar!" Dooey fires back.
You're absolutely right, dahhlink!
"He's taken the pretense out of art," AnHa announces. "I'm laughing in my face with you!"
How to beat such fucked-up logic?
Dooey hasn't a clue. "How can one little man have such a big impact, capsizing us all?" he asks about Lirette's sudden star turn.
Enter Melville. "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation," Dooey quotes the great novelist.
In a world of fakery, what price integrity? Like an original masterpiece, it's priceless, Dooey realizes.
The show closes with Lirette back in his living room, no righteous TV shows, darkness all around. This time the light belongs to Adam Dooey.
Ahab is at peace with the whale.
-- Mike Martin
"The Con Artist" plays nightly thru Sunday