Emerson artist seeks value and meaning in Bakersfield Mist


Photo: Andrew Brilliant

What makes art? Last Thursday’s premiere of Bakersfield Mist, starring Emerson’s Artist-in-Residence Ken Cheeseman, adds another voice to that debate.

At the center of Bakersfield Mist, the latest play from acclaimed playwright Stephen Sachs, is a painting picked up by trailer park resident Maude Gutman (Paula Langton) at a thrift store. She bought it in an attempt to buy the ugliest piece of art that she could as a gag gift.

The joke is on Maude when she realizes the throw away gift may be the “find of the century” — a lost Jackson Pollock. The find prompts art expert Lionel Percy (Cheeseman) to leave New York City for Maude’s trailer park to verify a missing piece of Jack the Dripper’s legacy — which ignites a debate on truth, authenticity and the value of art.

“[The show] questions what makes art valuable,” Cheeseman said. “What makes it worth 50 to 100 million dollars? Is it because it was signed by a famous artist, or is there something in the work itself that gives us a strong reaction?” 

The play is based on real events, recorded in the 2006 documentary Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?, which told the story of a 73-year-old California woman who may have inadvertently purchased a Pollock at a thrift store. Cheeseman’s character is based on a prominent player in the story, Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“He’s like a character from The New Yorker. That kind of guy,” Cheeseman said of his character.

The entire show takes place within Gutman’s junk-filled trailer. The collision of characters from two different worlds — urbanite art snob and trailer trash — sparks a dialogue on what art means to us and why it exists.

“Art is a kind of arbiter of truth for us. When we look for art, we are looking for authenticity, looking for truth,” Cheeseman said. “For Thomas Hoving, that was a huge part of his life.”

Bakersfield Mist is not the first time that Cheeseman has worked with director Jeff Zinn. Cheeseman recalled working with Zinn 30 years ago, when he acted in Zinn’s graduate school movie — which was also about truth and art.

“We picked up on that theme 30 years later, right where we left off,” Cheeseman said.

Bakersfield Mist’s script was one of six chosen by the National New Play Network to be simultaneously produced by several of the theaters in its 26-member network. In addition to Zinn’s production at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, Mass., separate versions of Bakersfield Mist will be staged at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles and the New Jersey Rep in Long Branch, NJ. The different productions will be performed within a 12 month period to create the “rolling premiere.” The purpose of the process is to give momentum to original plays by contemporary playwrights.

Like a good work of art, Bakersfield Mist doesn’t offer a singe solution, but leaves audiences to explore their own theories.

“It poses more questions than it provides answers,” said Cheeseman. “That is great, because art is also about our relationship to the unknown. It does not tie it all up in a nice package; that was not what Pollock did. It’s a bit of chaos.”

Cheeseman doesn’t hesitate to share his own ideas about the meaning of art.

“We cannot live lives of meaning without art,” he said. “The world would be a really uninteresting place, a really difficult place for human beings without art.”

Bakersfield Mist runs until March 18 at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, Mass. Tickets are $35 dollars.