Creating the masterpieces of The Old Masters

If one were to walk into Long Wharf Theatre’s prop shop about a couple of weeks ago, it would look as if you stumbled into the back room of the Uffizi in Florence.

Ornate Renaissance painting were just lying around on top of battered chairs, amidst the detritus of previous shows and the props department’s most recent projects. Paintings by the likes of … Ruth, Cone, and Farrelly?

The plot turns on the attribution of the Renaissance painting The Adoration of the Shepherds. Joseph Duveen (Brian Murray), an art dealer, brings the painting in an ornate case to Bernard Berenson (Sam Waterston), to ask him to reassess the provenance of the work. The two men joust about whether it was painted by Titian or Giorgione.

“The art is just a ruse to get you into the story. That said, you have to start with the truth,” said Jackie Farrelly, head of the prop shop.

The process of creating a lived in world always begins with the script. Farrelly and her team pored over Simon Gray’s script, researching every passing reference to art they could find. Armed with this information, photos of I Tatti, Bernard Berenson’s mansion and information about the characters’ lives, the props department began filling in Alexander Dodge’s glorious set.

The real life version of The Adoration of the Shepherds is 44×36 inches, far too large for an actor to carry on stage, Farrelly said. So, the props department made color copies of the work, printing them out on the theatre’s plotter, the device usually used to produce set ground plans. “We took 21st century technology and made it our best friend,” Farrelly said.

Once the “paintings” were complete, Jen Cone, a member of the props department, dressed the art using colored pencils. Bill Ruth, a props artisan, created replicas of the original Renaissance frames.

While the paintings certainly wouldn’t fool Berenson’s astute eye, from a distance they bring an additional patina of class and aesthetics to Long Wharf Theatre’s already stylish production of The Old Masters.

            

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