This month we get two plays involving deluded people living in trailers, Stephen Sachs’ Bakersfied Mist at the Ojai Art Center Theater running until 27 May, and Jane Anderson’s The Baby Dance: Mixed playing at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre Company through 20 May 2018.
Bakersfield Mist is based on the true story of a retired long-haul truck driver, Teri Horton, living in southern California, who happened to find a painting that appeared to be an unknown Jackson Pollock, or a very good facsimile thereof done by one of several known Pollock forgers. In the process of attempting to authenticate the painting, Horton ran into a swamp of art-world hubris, snobbery, and possible corruption, which was partially revealed in a 2006 documentary, Who the f&%$ is Jackson Pollock?. Horton is still trying to sell the painting, with a Saudi art collector reportedly offering nine million dollars.
This play, which is now performed to an even wider geographical distribution than when it was first launched, revealing considerable legs, is often criticized for its thinness, with critics suggesting that the real story is more interesting than the play. Maybe on paper, but definitely not when the play is taken up by a director as talented as Susan Kelejian, and two actors, such as Lee Ann Manley [playing Maude, the character modeled after Horton], and Paul Sulzman, playing Lionel, an art expert loosely modeled on a combination of several real-world curators and art experts, who insist on treating the characters as real individuals.
This is not as easy as it might seem, for the two characters in Sachs’ play are as two-dimensional as cardboard. Part of Kelejian and company’s secret is to insert a considerable amount of physical theatre, including a great wrestling scene, that rounds out and enriches the script as written. A great set also helps. Plus there is another star in the performance, the painting, created by Vonder Gray, of the questioned Pollock under consideration.
There are actually four paintings created by local artists for the Pollock painting prop, but the one used on opening night by Vonder Gray, does something that the others do not: that is, to render as close as possible, including color, the actual painting that Horton found. Since we have to see this painting for a good part of the play, this very closely rendered version adds considerably to the reality of the play. For this reason, the Vonder Gray version should be used throughout the run, because it really does add something unique, and possibly necessary, to this production’s depth and meaning.
One thing Sachs’ script does well, that is almost lacking in the real story, is imbue the story with a good deal of humor. Most of the characters in the real story do not seem to see the humor in their situation or appear that witty. But Sachs milks the story for a lot of great lines and hilarious situational moments. Sachs has the advantage of being a long-time director, writer, and resident in Southern California and understands the whole California trailer park zeitgeist to a T. Which makes one wonder how that comes across in all those international productions this play is getting. As Sachs wonders in an opening night appearance “Do they even have trailer parks in Sweden?” Some theatre people elsewhere have felt this script was too close to superficial TV sit-com writing, which usually bothers this reviewer, but not this time around: no worries here, Sachs’ script works on stage and the great crew at Ojai is abe to turn all this into a fun night of highly entertaining theatre. Do not miss this one.
By Erik ReeL, Society805.com Art and Culture Contributing Editor at Large
Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs
Directed by Susan Kelejian
Starring Lee Ann Manley and Paul Sulzman
Produced by Aaliyah Mora-Khan, co-produced by Lee Ann Manley, Paul Sulzman
With Steve Mitchell, set, Larry Blumenthal, lights, Kitty Bartholomew, properties, Robert Decker and Steve Mitchell set construction, Sheryl Jo Bedal, stage manegement with assistance from Wenona Guthrie.
Ojai Art Center Theatre
4 May to 27 May 2018
Information at ojaiact.org