Wednesday 26 October 2016

Bakersfield Mist is vintage Cavendish hilarity
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Canadians are wonderstruck by lotteries. Just two years ago 34% of people polled by the CBC included winning the lottery as a linchpin of their retirement planning. Seriously. "Rags to riches!" "Instant happiness!" These are the premises underlying Bakersfield Mist. In the 40's, USA's controversial drip-&-flick abstract expressionist Jackson Pollack was the master of splatter. His brush never touched the canvas. He and others of the so-called New York School became famous, adopted enthusiastically by the Guggenheim Museum family for their gestures of improvisational enthusiasm. 

It's now 2012. Fifty-something Bakersfield, CA ex-bartender and divorcee Maude Gutman (Nicola Cavendish) thinks she's got herself an authentic Pollack. She paid $3 for it at a local 2nd-hand shop. Seeing it, a high school art teacher says it might be the real thing. So she wheedles and begs an international art foundation back in New York to send out a curator and art expert to authenticate her painting. This will set her free from her trailer park void where she drinks and dreams and pines for her dead son. The foundation agrees, and a limo promptly plops Lionel Percy (Jonathan Monro) at her trailer pad with neighbour Roberta's frothing dogs about to shred him. Bouncing ideas about what is "real" -vs- what is "fake" in life through endless comic banter is what the rest of this unlikely 2-hander about an art snob and a barkeep coughs up. And delightfully so.

How it's all put together :  The premise here is right out of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, the theory known as "thin-slicing", what Wiki calls "our ability to use limited information from a very narrow period of experience to come to a conclusion". Percy prides himself on being able to spot the true from the phony in just eine Augenblick as the Germans would say : the blink of an eye. Should his glance convince him this truly is a successor to Pollack's famed One : Number 31 (1950) called Lavender Mist, who knows what untold riches Maude will reap financially and personally and himself professionally.

The fun of the show is the clash of values between this truly odd couple. Right from the get-go. Maude, raucous and profane, surrounded by a clutter of kitschy bric-a-brac Sally Ann decorations. Lionel. Urbane, tutored, worldly in his vested suit and Armani tie. But bring on a fistful of Jack Daniels No. 7 whiskey and the ensuing snozzle teases out remembrances of things past in vino veritas moments that pit her trailer park artlessness against his higher brow pretensions. Who's "real" here, who's "fake" ? 

What the show brings to the stage : Underlying the verbal shenanigans is the question what is, after all, "genuine"? Art is just the medium to get to the core message.

Take Italian painter Pietro Perugino, beloved by his countrymen. One of his most famous pieces -- "Virgin and Child with Saints" -- was recently subjected to an examination called wavelet decomposition. Conclusion reached was that no fewer than four painters from his studio had their hand in producing it. Does that make it less a thing of beauty and joy forever? Is it now no longer genuine? 

Or what about Michaelangelo's marble statue David at the Galleria dell' Accademia in Florence. Why is it more compelling than all the knock-off lookalikes scattered around Rome?

Most folks agree it was Andy Warhol who started the current conversation about What is art? with his famous Campbell soup can series. Meanwhile, in Maude's trailer, pigs in a blanket under slices of Velveeta lathered in hot dog mustard are her approximation of what Felix Unger would call hors d'oeuvres. What importance any of this at the core of our orderly and striving and anxious 1st-world lives. Need we care? 

Still, we gotta know. Is Maude's canvas -- "this godawful piece of shit, the ugliest painting I've ever seen", she calls it -- is this pure laine Pollack DNA or not. A $3 fake or a $100 Million masterpiece?

Acting pin-spots :  Playwright Stephen Sachs clearly has an ear for snappy dialogue. And in the hands of long-time collaborators Director Roy Surette and Cavendish, the script bristles and crackles with fun. Cavendish and Monro capture the fun of big ideas in small moments with disarming and fetching nonchalance on her part, scads of stuffy pretence on his. Learned as he is he snorts : "My opinion means something, yours does not!" Maude retorts, hurt but defiant : "You mean me and this painting are bogus, worthless, junk, with no reason to live...?".

Percy's discourses on what art does to the hearts and minds of aficionados are priceless. Particularly his soliloquy replicated in ACT's Bills Notes about Pollack having a spiritual quasi-sexual experience creating Lavender Mist, even pees on it in the making. Hearty audience applause at its end. She pleads with Percy to mark his 'X' in the box affirming his professional opinion her painting is the real issue. When he accuses of her of just wanting the windfall from her three-buck purchase Maude pounces : "I don't give a shit about the money, it's the truth that counts you snooty sonuvabitch!" 

Maude reveals she knows Percy's history at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its purchase under his watch of an allegedly bogus 2,500 year old Greek kouros statue. Percy resigns / is fired from his post. Just like Maude from her bartender job. They hoist shots of Jack and yak. Life stories emerge : about Maude's abusive alcoholic ex-husband who abandons them, a likely gay son unloved by Dad who kills himself in a car wreck after a 6-er of Coors. About Percy's failed childless marriage to a woman who found art attractive to look at but nothing even remotely to orgasm over. Or spend countless words puffing and snorting righteously over the way Percy does. 

A fine climax scene when Maude takes out a butcher knife and threatens to carve up this apparently fake Pollack. Percy is aghast. (A professional moment of doubt perhaps?) They fight. Painting saved. Maude shows him a letter from a chap in India who offers her $2 million for the piece, no certification or authenticity required. Percy advises her to take the money and run. She demurs. "It's not about the money. This painting found me. The world needs to know its true meaning, its true value because there are some things you can't say in words!" She toasts the canvas with a final shot of J.D. No.7 as curtain falls. 

Production features that add value : Designer Pam Johnson has a fine eye for detail. Pre-show I was convinced the Stanley stage would be too wide and deep for just two actors. But Johnson's details of Maude having 70+ fridge magnets and her favourite piece, a laughing clown litho, a cheesy Route 66 beer sign and other junk shop specialties spread themselves across the stage wonderfully well.

The Wanda Jackson / Patsy Cline intro-exit tunes were perfect book-ends, while Michael Sider's video cuts of Picasso and the kouros statue atop the scenes below added clever visuals.

Who gonna like : It is probably impossible for this reviewer to exit a Nicola Cavendish show with a critical syllable whatever to utter. Just hitching her pants up in the opening moments had me in stitches. She is a master of stage business, fidgetry, eye-rolling smirky sarcasm. And b.t.w. every actor in Vancouver needs to have a 2-day seminar in swearing from Nicola : she knows precisely when to emphasize the f-word and when to hit its attending noun instead.  

The shift from Percy-the-snob to Percy-the-bourbon swiller was probably too abrupt, though his return to snooty form after the exhausting orgiastic knife tussle was just right. Thus that the show is one-act (85 minutes) is good : while capable and professional and clever, Mr. Sachs' script is not Pulitzer-level stuff. The energy gets flattish and just sort of dissipates until the final verbal burst of defiance by Maude.

But no need to look for serious messaging in all this. Sure, maybe learn some ideas about how and why visual art stirs passions. And some details about why 1940's abstract expressionism is supposed to excite us, not leave us cross-eyed. And have some fun comparing NYC 5th Avenue values with Bakersfield, CA main street. 

But mostly this is a rollicking chirpy tale through the eyes of a robust and battered and bounce-back romantic whose charm can't help but embrace you and let a better angel perch, if but a moment or two, on your shoulder.

Particulars : Written by Stephen Sachs. At the Arts Club Stanely Theatre, 11th & Granville.  On until November 20.  Run-time 85 minutes, no intermission.  Tickets by phone at 604.687.1644 or

Production team:  Director Roy Surette (Artistic Director Centaur Theatre, Montreal).  Set & Costume Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Conor Moore.  Video Designer Michael Sider.  Stage Manager Rick Rinder.  Assistant Stage Manager Noelle Sediego.

Performers :  Nicola Cavendish (Maude).  Jonathan Monro (Lionel).


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