In 1991 a 59-year-old trucker by the name of Teri Horton walked out of a San Bernardino thrift shop with a $5 gag gift for a friend, a 5’6” x 3’11” canvas webbed with lines of red, yellow, black, red and navy paint. Horton thought it was so ugly it was funny. The joke was on Horton; the painting was too big to fit through the door of her friend’s trailer house.
A few days later Horton added the “gag gift” to her yard sale where an art instructor from the local college approached her and voiced a cautious opinion that he thought it might be a “Jackson Pollock.” To which Horton shot back, “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?” Well she didn’t really employ jarns and nittles as her intensifier but you get the drift.
Horton’s fifteen year struggle to obtain substantiation from the art establishment that her painting is indeed a Pollock is the subject matter of Harry Moses’ 2006 documentary which takes its title from Horton’s initial interrogative expression, and which provided playwright and director Stephan Sachs with the basis for his new work “Bakersfield Mist” now playing at the Fountain Theatre.
Sachs’ play opens on Maude (Jenny O’Hara), a recently fired bartender, in her Bakersfield mobile home, whose thrift store décor would undoubtedly result in Good Housekeeping taking out a contract on her. She is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Lionel Percy (Nick Ullett), former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, author of a dozen books on the subject, including “Art for Dummies”, and recognized authority on abstract expressionism. He travelled from New York to appraise her piece, and his blessing, “calling down from on high,” would affect the transubstantiation of Maude’s three dollar “gag gift” into a work with a market value of $100 million dollars.
From the moment “The Great Man” rushes into Maude’s trailer, with her neighbor’s dogs fast on his heels, it is clearly a converging of matter and anti-matter, of mongoose and cobra, of white trash and tight ass.
Once the painting is brought out for his evaluation, his verdict is prompt: “Not a Pollock.”
Maude implores him to look again, that maybe he’ll change his mind if he looks at it a little longer. He dismisses her as offhandedly as a fly buzzing annoyingly about one’s head. He doesn’t require more time; his expertise enables his “knowing without thinking.” That is connoisseurship, he explains. That is horse shit, she replies. And the gloves are off!
Sachs’ play holds close to the actual events for the most part, basing the character of Percy on the late Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan in New York, who was Horton’s main detractor. To show that Percy is not infallible, Sachs does attribute to the character the purchase of a fake archaic Greek kouros leading to his forced resignation by the museum’s board. In fact this was not a faux pas on the part of New York’s Met but of The Getty Museum in Malibu. (The statue is still on display there.)
Sachs’ direction is deft; the piece moves with readiness that encapsulates both Maude’s ever increasing angst that Percy may escape from her trailer without revising his ruling and Percy’s impatience to flee an environment where clown art is a prominent element of the décor scheme. The play itself is somewhat problematic for anyone familiar with the story in that it doesn’t really separate from the factual circumstance to establish a dramatic reality of its own until late into the second half. Then one is only given a sense of the possibilities which should have been entrenched much earlier on.
The most promising motif, which arrives too late in the score that Sachs conducts from, is the identification of Maude as Pollock’s art made flesh: raw, volatile, an outpouring fueled by alcoholism and inner demons.
Still Sachs’ script is to be admired. For one, he presents, through an impassioned Percy perhaps the most illuminating and insightful vindication of Pollock’s artistic intent I have ever encountered. For most, I suspect Pollock’s works remain inscrutable until they view the films of Hans Namuth which capture the intense purposefulness of Pollock at work and forever frees him from the slur “Jack the Dripper”.
Also Sachs provides an excellent arena for his two actors whose lively and meticulous performances are a celebration of that happy union of craft and talent. Let me also call attention to Jeff McLaughlin, for his exquisite set that expresses perfectly to an audience both the world the play inhabits and the kind of person inhabiting that world. Kudos.
The Fountain Theatre
5060 Fountain Ave.
Los Angeles CA 90029
(Fountain at Normandie)
Performances: continue through Dec 18
Thursdays @ 8 pm: Oct 20, 27; Nov 3, 10, 17, Dec 1, 8, 15 (dark Nov, 24)
Fridays @ 8 pm: Oct 21, 28; Nov 4, 11, 18, 25; Dec 2, 9, 17
Saturdays @ 8 pm: Oct 22, 29; Nov 5, 12, 26; Dec 3, 10, 17
Sundays @ 2 pm: Oct 23, 30; Nov 6, 13, 27; Dec 4, 11, 18
General admission: $30
Seniors over 62 (Thursdays and Fridays only): $25
Students (Thursdays and Fridays only, with ID): $20
Secure, on-site parking: $5