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Bakersfield Mist playing at the Centaur Theatre

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Bakersfield Mist – Imagine buying a painting at a yard sale or a junk shop for a few measly bucks. Yet somehow, through some dumb luck, that the painting in question the purchaser hoped to merely grace the wall of their modest home, turns out to be a long lost painting by a famous artist, and is valued at millions of dollars. Or is it just a worthless fake? This is the premise of Stephen Sachs’ acclaimed play Bakersfield Mist, which is now playing at the Centaur Theatre until February 26.

Based on a true story, “Bakersfield Mist” centres around Maude Guttman (Nicola Cavendish), a hard drinking, chain-smoking unemployed bartender who lives in a trailer park in Bakersfield, California, in a mobile home that’s filled from floor to ceiling with kitschy knick-knacks. Amongst the kitsch, Maude has in her possession a painting she bought for three dollars at a junk shop, which could possibly be an unknown masterpiece by 1950s controversial American painter Jackson Pollock, and could possibly be worth between $50 million and $100 million.

To validate her claim, Maude hires the services of Lionel Percy (Jonathan Monro), a highly-qualified, but rather snooty, art expert who flies all the way from New York City to closely evaluate the painting to see if it’s a genuine Jackson Pollock canvas. After a careful examination, Percy quickly informs Maude that the painting is a fake, a claim that Maude steadfastly refuses to believe, and begins an 80-minute battle of nerves and wits to convince Percy that she owns a Jackson Pollock original, in which the sale of it to a museum or private collection could mean to her financial security, a comfortable life, and a ticket out of the trailer park.

The play, which was an acclaimed hit in the West End of London and Los Angeles, is a fast-paced dramedy that focuses on the issue of authenticity in both art and humanity. Both Cavendish and Monro deliver strong performances, as they engage in a thrust-and-parry type of repartee (which is quite funny, but gets quite volcanic at times) on what art means to them, and why this painting – whether it is an authentic Jackson Pollock masterpiece or not – has such personal significance to each other. It’s almost like an in-the-flesh battle between the snobs and the slobs that is filled with plenty of Jack Daniels-soaked confessions, with a piece of painted canvas as the grand prize for the winner.

However, the story of “Bakersfield Mist” has the power to provoke some deep thoughts after watching the performance, especially the motivation that drives Maude to defend the painting’s authenticity (which has a very tragic, personal story to it), and whether Percy is telling the truth about how genuine the painting really is (Is it a fake? Or is he just covering up the fact that it is a Pollock, and he doesn’t want to give a piece of trailer trash the satisfaction that she owns a very valuable work of modern art).

Also, kudos to Pam Johnson’s set design, which faithfully recreates to the most minute of details a typical mobile home, right down to the Formica tables, the clown paintings and the rather tacky figurine collections.

“Bakersfield Mist” is another triumphant hit for the Centaur. It’s an engrossing verbal ping-pong match of what a sense of authenticity is really all about, whether it plays on an artistic canvas, or that much grander canvas called life.

For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to www.centaurtheatre.com, or call 514-288-3161.

By: Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca

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