What is art? Who gets to decide what good art is? What is the line between good art and bad art, and between an “original” art piece and a forgery?

Calithumpian Theatre Collective’s new production Bakersfield Mist, which premiered on February 22, 2019, at TAP Centre for creativity at London, Ontario, asks these simple yet profound questions.  Written by American playwright Stephen Sachs, it is inspired by true events which involve an accidental art collector, a renowned art connoisseur and a painting supposedly made by Jackson Pollock. Directed by Dave Semple and performed by George Jolink and Deborah Mitchell, this two-hander is full of witty one-liners and wry humor.

Maude (Mitchell), an unemployed, single, middle-aged woman has bought a painting from a thrift store for a really cheap price but is later somehow convinced that it is a masterpiece by the legendary Jackson Pollock. Lionel Percy (Jolink), a renowned art critic and expert from New York flies in to check the authenticity of both the painting and her claims. Percy is not convinced which disappoints Maude, and she opens up the Pandora’s Box that questions not only the entire practice of art connoisseurship but also challenges the notion of art itself. The play is an index to the shaky grounds on which art is praised, uplifted, criticized or rejected.

If art appreciation is subjective, then any layman’s verdict on art is as valid as an expert’s. On the other hand, if it is objective, it certainly makes all the art practices an elitist venture. The play sways between these two ends but is clearly sided with the lay Maude who is pitted against the expert Lionel Percy. Deborah Mitchell aptly captures the multi-faceted character of Maude who is in deep agony due to her personal losses and is attempting to make up for it with alcoholism and art collection. Maude’s humorous aspect, as well as her grief, comes out through Mitchell’s conviction and comic-timing, and an ability to switch codes between vulnerability and aggression. To balance Mitchell’s flamboyant and endearing Maude is George Jolink’s restrained portrayal of Lionel Percy. Jolink succeeds in capturing the snobbishness and elitism of his character and shines in his own monologues but evidently struggles to keep up with his interlocutor on stage.

The lights and the music are kept minimal, and it is mostly the script, the actors and the beautiful set design that keeps the boat floating. Stephen Mitchell’s set design match with the overall mood of the play. It uses the space perfectly well and ends up giving us the portrait of a living room which is organized yet full of mess. It anticipates in some ways the organized messiness of the structure of the play, and also functions as a symbol for the Psyches of both the characters. The play can also be read as an allegory to imperial mindset and patriarchal conditioning, but those layers are barely scratched and remain mostly superficial.

Still, the play is a good mix of entertainment and profundity and asks questions that can certainly be food for thought for the audience.

Bakersfield Mist runs at TAP Centre for Creativity, London, Ontario, Canada from February 22 to March 2.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.