"Bakersfield Mist" at WHAT is wild and witty

Lively and smart, new play packs as much punch as a Pollock

   Ken Cheeseman as Lionel Percy and Paula Langton as Maude Gutman in "Bakersfield Mist" at WHAT. Photo by Jeff Zinn.

By Maggie Kulbokas

"Bakersfield Mist" premiered last week on the Julie Harris Stage at WHAT (Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater) in Wellfleet before a very enthusiastic audience. From the Cape's gallery town comes a new play about the age old question--debate, really--what IS art?  If a painting evokes a particular feeling in the viewer, is it not art regardless of the artist, the medium or the viewer?

 Written by Stephen Sachs and directed by Jeff Zinn, "Bakersfield Mist" is an engaging one act play featuring two very talented actors. Based on a true story*, "Bakersfield Mist" is about Maude Gutman, an over the hill, chain-smoking, unemployed bartender who purchases the ugliest painting she can find at a thrift shop as a gag gift for a friend. Turns out, Maude's $5-marked-down-to-$3 joke, may be an authentic Jackson Pollock. Pollock (1912-1956) was an abstract expressionist painter, known for his uniquely wild splatter and drip-style of painting. Potentially worth millions, Maude arranges for an art expert from the East Coast to personally inspect the painting in her Bakersfield trailer.

*"Bakersfield Mist" is based on the true story of Teri Horton, a retired truck driver, who in the mid-90s at the age of 73, purchased the ugliest painting she could find as a gag gift for a friend in San Bernardino, California.
     Teri's story was told in the 2006 documentary, "Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?"

The esteemed Lionel Percy arrives at the trailer park by limo, straight off the art foundation's private jet from New York City. Percy is well-bred, snobbish and clearly mortified by Maude and Maude's home. Could this foul-mouthed, tattooed, whiskey-swilling woman be the owner of a masterpiece? Percy's arrogance and ignorance tells him otherwise and he dismisses both Maude and her painting with only a fleeting inspection.

In a cluttered kitschy trailer, the self-proclaimed pope of the art world goes toe to toe, or better, wing tip to cowboy boot, with a woman who may be lacking in polish and education, but is no dumb broad--the two soon learning they may be more alike then either would care to admit.

Paula Langton, as Maude, and Ken Cheeseman, as Percy, were both captivating.  They deftly avoided the all too easy trap of portraying their characters as caricatures, instead bringing two very different, but equal people to life.

The set, designed by Ji-you Chang had a lived in feel--the home of someone who, in her own words, likes to collect junk. Detailed props and design makes one wonder if there was anything left to purchase at the Wellfleet Flea Market this weekend. Whether worth millions or not, that Maude has quite a collection.

A rolling world premiere, "Bakersfield Mist" is a co-production with New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, where the play will be staged in February and March of 2012. The play runs now through September 4, Thursdays through Sundays on WHAT's Julie Harris Stage, 2357 Route 6, Wellfleet.  Tickets, $29 ($15 for students), are available online here and at the Box Office by calling 508-349-9428.

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