Monday, March 20, 2023

"Bakersfield Mist" at Gremlin Theatre

Head to the Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul for Bakersfield Mist, a tight 70-minute two-hander that elicits both uproarious laughter and pin-drop silence with the revelation of real emotion. Most of the humor comes from the odd couple pairing of a trailer park dwelling bartender and an art expert from the big city, and much of the pathos comes from the fact that these are two damaged human beings who open up to each other in surprising ways. You couldn't ask for a better duo than #TCTheater vets Jen Maren and John Middleton, or a better director than Angela Timberman. The result is a really funny and entertaining dramedy that also explores themes of art, legitimacy, grief, and humanity. See it at the Gremlin now through April 2, and since it's only 70 minutes, you can make a night of it with a visit to Lake Monster Brewing (and food trucks) right next door.

The play is based on the true story of a woman who bought a painting for $5 at a thrift store, only to later find out that it might have been painted by Jackson Pollack, also the subject of a 2006 documentary. In this version of the story, Maude applies to an art foundation in New York City, who sends a representative named Lionel Percy out to her California trailer park home. The story plays out in real time, Lionel all business, and Maude offering him a drink and telling stories about her life. Lionel very quickly determines that the painting is not authentic, but Maude is not a woman who takes no for an answer. We soon find out that a past trauma may be behind her obsession with proving the painting is real, and that Lionel may have a few skeletons in his closet too. At one point Maude asks Lionel to give her an estimate of the painting's value if it were authentic, cajoling him to "be a person." That's what happens over the course of the play - what starts as a cold business transaction turns into a messy but real interaction between two people, who may not be as different as we originally thought.

Jen Maren and John Middleton (photo courtesy of Gremlin)
Angela Timberman, who knows a thing or two about mixing hilarity with heartbreak as an actor, directs this piece with rip-roaring speed through the smart and funny script, slowing down for the poignant moments, particularly when Maude reveals the grief she's dealing with (or not dealing with). Jen Maren and John Middleton are both uber talented actors who have been seen on multiple stages around town, and they're both so fantastic in these roles, with a great chemistry between them. They had the nearly full Sunday matinee audience in stitches from word one. Jen as Maude starts out as a stereotypical trailer park resident - teased hair, too much makeup, talking too loud and too much, drinking and smoking, but eventually reveals that she's smarter than first impressions might suggest. John as Lionel is a cool and efficient businessman in a neat suit, opening up when he talks about his love of art to reveal there is a human in there. This dream team of director and actors brings out all of the humor and humanity in this succinctly written script. Here's an equation worth noting: AT+(JM)2 = great theater.

The Gremlin stage has been turned into an incredibly detailed replication of a trailer park home, filled with tchotchkes on every surface and "art" covering the back wall. The painting in question looks like it really could be a Pollack, or a good imitation. Kitchen area and living room are fully visible to the audience on three sides, the action well staged from all viewpoints. And once again, fight director Annie Enneking has choreographed a realistic tousle between the characters when things get heated. (Set design by Carl Schoenborn, prop and costume design by Sarah Bauer.)

Bakersfield Mist is the perfect little 70-minute play that's both seriously funny and deadly serious. It brings up, but never answers, questions like: what is art? what is authenticity? who decides the value of things? Maybe the value of art is simply what someone who loves it is willing to pay for it. In this case, that's $16-32, and well worth it.