Review: Centaur’s ‘Bakersfield Mist’ a masterful comedy on art, authenticity, and life

Stephen Sachs' riotous comedy makes its Quebec Premiere this winter in Montreal

Jonathan Monro as Lionel Percy and Nicola Cavendish as Maude Gutman in “Bakersfield Mist” at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre (Photo Credit: David Cooper)

The winter opener for the Centaur Theatre Company is a one-act two-hander of polar opposites that meet in sunny Bakersfield, California in a classic story of clashing cultures. Starring Canadian stage veterans Nicola Cavendish and Jonathan Monro under the direction of Roy Surette, American playwright Stephen Sachs’ comedy “Bakersfield Mist” makes its Quebec Premiere at the Centaur this season in a whirlwind 80-minute altercation on art, authenticity, and life. Read the full review by Camila Fitzgibbon below.

“It only takes two seconds to reach a conclusion,” asserts Lionel. “You see it. You know.”

“First impressions can be wrong,” counters Maude.

“Mine aren’t.”

Jonathan Monro and Nicola Cavendish in “Bakersfield Mist” (Photo Credit: David Cooper)

She’s a scrappy out-of-work bartender living alone in a run-down trailer park; he’s a highbrow world-class critic of the arts establishment that’s just flown in from New York on a private jet. Bringing these two most dissimilar characters together is a splattered canvas picked up at a local junk shop for $3 that has now prompted his examination visit to her home – one which must end with his expert verdict on the multi-million dollar question: is the mysterious painting a long-lost, original undiscovered work by the late, great Jackson Pollock?

Crazed collector and hoarder of gadgets and gizmos galore whose life could suddenly be changed by his stamp of approval, Maude Gutman (Nicola Cavendish) is convinced she’s got a masterpiece of abstract expressionism in her hands, but the moment the pompous, Princeton-educated Lionel Percy (Jonathan Monro) categorically sizes it – and her – up, declaring it a fake, her wishful thinking gives way to a contentious and comedic battle of class and culture.

Nicola Cavendish as Maude in “Bakersfield Mist” (Photo Credit: David Cooper)

As Lionel, the snobbish, self-described connoisseur and former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jonathan Monro is finely suited (pun intended) and spirited, but it is Nicola Cavendish as the spitfire, foulmouthed, volatile Maude that elevates the production with a character of resonant depths. (Monro is not entirely at fault: Sachs’ disappointingly thin – and at times implausible – script is visibly keen to side us with the down-on-luck dame). Cavendish here takes a comic beat and turns it into three without ever verging on the cartoonish and all while stripping bare Maude’s layers of anger, regret, and dangerous despair. It’s a genius, masterful interpretation that decidedly ranks among our favourite performances of the current Montreal theatre season.

Bakersfield Mist Trailer from Centaur Theatre

Capturing Maude’s idiosyncrasies and tortuous inner world (as well as the volcanic and undisciplined characteristics of Pollock’s work) is Pam Johnson’s intricate set design: it’s a penny-pincher’s trove of colourful wonders that takes a moment to fully inhale (we’re wildly tempted to return for a second viewing just to take pleasure in dissecting the possible intents of the amusing individual stage elements). Michael Sider’s video design and Conor Moore’s lighting also provide for some vibrant, splashy effects – particularly during some of Lionel’s metaphor-rich monologues.

Nicola Cavendish and Jonathan Monro in “Bakersfield Mist” (Photo Credit: David Cooper)

Inspired by true events, “Bakersfield Mist” assuredly serves to spark a discussion on the controversial practice of the valuation of art – a most subjective commodity. “What gives art prestige and who gets to determine that?” are the questions that led us to deeper ponderation (as public reviewers of one of its many forms, it would perhaps be insensible not to). The play’s deliberation on what makes people authentic, however – while commendable – only scratches the surface, merely drafting the portraits of a man and a woman seeking validation for their own lives. Lionel’s unconvincing hesitation to leave after his case has long been closed, for example, is one of the few head-scratchers that undermine a script eager to deliver a message on realness in human beings.

Still, “Bakersfield Mist” is entirely intact in production and entertainment value and the formidable duo of Cavendish and Monro (who here at last makes his Centaur stage debut) makes this excursion to the theatre a most worthwhile one. It’s outrageously funny, endearing, and enjoyable to no end.

But, alas, who are we to veritably ascertain that?… make your way over and take a look for yourselves.

Review by Montreal Theatre Hub Editor-in-Chief Camila Fitzgibbon

Bakersfield Mist presented by the Centaur Theatre Company in co-production with the Arts Club Theatre of Vancouver runs at Montreal’s historic Centaur (453 St. François-Xavier, H2Y 2T1) through February 26th, 2017. Tickets are $28-51 (student/senior/under 30 discounts available) and can be purchased in person, online at, or by calling the Box Office at (514) 288-3161.

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