Tall Tales: Avenue Theater’s “Bakerfield Mist,” A Review
Based on a real-life incident, “Bakersfield Mist” is a fine, funny contemplation on the definition of art—its value, power, meaning, and relationship to the human experience. It’s snobs versus the masses. It’s sophistication versus the uncultured. It’s Lionel Percy’s perfect suit versus Maude Gutman’s frumpy garb.
“Bakersfield Mist” was inspired by real-life events. In fact, the story at the heart of this two-person play, beautifully staged at the Avenue Theater, has also been the subject of considerable news coverage and a 2007 documentary called “Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?”
That question was uttered by one Teri Horton, then a retired long-haul truck driver and junk shop aficionado who bought an abstract painting for five bucks only to later discover, thanks to a friend, that she might have a rare Jackson Pollock in her possession. Horton spent a decade trying to get it authenticated. Is it a Pollock? The “experts” have said no, but she carried her crusade for years and turned down offers of many millions of dollars because she knew a “real” Pollock would fetch much more, up to $150 million.
Playwright Stephen Sachs uses this clash of opposites to terrific effect. Within a few beats of the start of “Bakersfield Mist,” New York art “expert” Lionel Percy (John Ashton) is standing stiff and mortified inside the kitschy desert trailer of Maude Gutman (Abby Apple Boes). There’s a dart board, a velvet painting (gasp), a bean bag chair, an Astro turf lawn, and an ample supply of Jack Daniels.
Percy has arrived with his process, his paperwork, and his uber-sensitive gut instincts for discerning fake from genuine. He can spot a forgery, he says, in a mere two seconds. “A blink.” The news for Gutman is not good. Percy is emphatic. There can be no question, he explains, so sign this form and good riddance. He will back on his private jet and return to the land of real art.
“Bakersfield Mist” is a brisk 80 minutes of back-and-forth banter about the meaning of art and, of course, about these two disparate lives. Who here is infallible? Who here has seen better days? Whose life is more real? More meaningful? Sachs’ script allows Gutman and Percy to probe and poke around in each other’s lives, taking off masks, exploring missteps, and needling at wounds. The laughs come fast and hard.
Ashton is perfectly serene and serious as the noted curator. He flashes true passion for art as he demonstrates for Gutman how Pollock put meaning behind his splatters. Boes is all loose and raw, unpredictable and wild in her portrayal of Gutman. It’s a fine, odd-couple pairing and director Peter J. Hughes finds moments of both genuine connection and utter frenzy.
The set (also by Peter J. Hughes) at Avenue Theater is knock-out, packed with Gutman’s junk yard gleanings. The interior of her home is set against a Pollock-esque proscenium (Patrick Gerace) that offers a constant reminder of the clash in art and values.
“Bakersfield Mist” runs through July 2.
Editor’s note: Telluride Inside… and Out’s regular column, Tall Tales, is so named because contributor Mark Stevens is one long drink of water. He is also long on talent. Mark was raised in Massachusetts. He’s been a Coloradoan since 1980. He’s worked as a print reporter, national news television producer, and school district communicator. Mark is the author of the Allison Coil Mystery Series—Antler Dust (2007), Buried by the Roan (2011), Trapline (2014) and Lake of Fire (due out in September, 2015). The series is set in the Flat Tops Wilderness in Western Colorado. Trapline won the 2015 Colorado Book Award for best mystery and the 2015 Colorado Author League award for best genre fiction. Mark Stevens’ new Alison Coil mystery, Lake of Fire, was published this year.
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