If you want to see a play about friendship, go see Art at Signature. But if you want to see a play about art, you should see Lee Blessing’s Chesapeake, now playing at the Bay Theatre in Annapolis.
Chesapeake, so named because of the Chesapeake Bay Retrievers who come to dominate the story, informs us about art because it is about Kerr (no first name), a performance artist, because the story is at bottom a meditation on the need for art in society, and because Matthew Vaky, a newcomer from Minnesota’s Guthrie Theatre who plays all of the roles in this production, is an artist. Big time.
That Kerr is a performance artist practically implies much of the play to its midpoint. Here are the other significant players: the National Endowment for the Arts. A cornpone politician named Therm Pooley. And Pooley’s beloved dog, Lord Ratliff of Luckymore, known in public as “Lucky” and in the privacy of the politician’s home, “Rat.”
Outrage over Kerr’s receipt of an NEA grant becomes the cornerstone of one of Pooley’s political campaigns. He accuses Kerr, and by extension the NEA, of advancing “poor-nog-ra-phy” on his 30-second spots while the camera focuses on Lucky, putting his paws up over his eyes. (Kerr’s signature act is disrobing while reciting the Song of Solomon.) This attack, to which Kerr has no response, is sufficient to give Pooley a narrow win.
It’s important to understand that this play is not a debate about whether NEA should be funded in the face of the current budget crisis; nor is it an argument about the proper role of government in the funding of the arts. Pooley’s attack on Kerr, and on the NEA, is an attack on the very concept of art itself. Art, in Pooley’s worldview (or in the worldview he cynically sells to his constituents), is the preoccupation of losers – a frivolous thing, akin to stamp-collecting and less elevated than horse-racing, and moreover currently practiced by perverts, who are forever taking off each other’s clothes and performing immoral acts. To Pooley, art as it currently exists is nothing more than a confidence game designed to degrade the human condition, and decent people, including those in Congress, should have nothing to do with it.
It is this full-body assault on everything that Kerr is that drives the performance artist to an act of hideous revenge. However, since Kerr is a performance artist, you can be assured that this act of hideous revenge will also be absurd and ridiculous. You see, Kerr is a disciple of Filippo Marinetti, who founded the Futurists in the early part of the last century in an effort to remove all the predictability in art. “[Marinetti] and a few of his buddies would stand in cafés wearing funnels on their bodies and cones on their heads,” Kerr explains admiringly, “and spout poems that made no sense at all – not even real words sometimes…[t]hey wrote plays for actors feet. They wrote one with only a dog in it, called There is No Dog.” Kerr’s plot is like a Marinetti inspiration, only worse.
I will not tell you anything more about the story, except to mention that there is a plot twist which suggests that God, too, is a performance artist.
I will say that this is an absolutely smashing local debut for Vaky, who is obviously a major talent. In Vaky’s hands, Chesapeake becomes an exercise in the storyteller’s art, which is to say that it doesn’t sound like “art” at all, but like something out of real life – some fantastic story that a good friend tells you over a beer or two at the local bar. You are riveted by the story despite its implausible facts because of the insight it gives into the human spirit. With each line, the story sinks deeper into shaggy-dog absurdity; and with each line the human and emotional truth becomes clearer, like the lucid water in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.
Some solo shows – I am thinking particularly of Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife – are celebrations of actorly skill and precision, because the actor is able to establish indelible separation among his many characters, each of whom has his or her moment on stage. In others – and now I am thinking of Kimberly Gilbert’s marvelous performance in The K of D – the actor tells a story from the protagonist’s point of view, occasionally putting on the persona of other characters to advance the story objectives. Vaky’s work in Chesapeake is in the latter category, and the wry, ingratiating, self-aware characteristics he gives to Kerr are what make the story both powerful and winning.
Vaky, whose performance bespeaks strong and insightful direction by Gillian Drake, is supplemented by excellent technical work, and in particular Greg Martin’s inventive, lyrical soundscape.
Kerr’s principal mission, and the story’s, is to make it clear that we need art to redeem and understand our experience. But along the way, Blessing makes important, and revealing, observations about a whole range of matters, the most significant of which has to do with our struggle to escape our animal natures. For example, Kerr’s plot against Pooley is periodically stymied by the artist’s overwhelming attraction to Stacey, Pooley’s smarmy aide who apparently resembles the Futurist artist Valentine de Saint-Point. More subtly, Kerr finds himself drawn to a wonderfully cynical offer Pooley makes shortly after the election (I won’t tell you what it was).
The ultimate benefit of art is that it helps us understand how to be a human. The additional benefit that Chesapeake gives us is that it helps us to understand why the struggle to be human is worthwhile.
Now, please stand by while I tell other people how to do their business.
Attention, Helen Hayes Award decision-makers:
I recommend that you consider the Bay Theatre Company for your next John Aniello Award, which goes to an emerging theater company. Using extremely limited space, Annapolis’ only ongoing professional theater company has put on a season’s worth of difficult plays, and done them well. They’ve reintroduced us to the fabulous Nigel Reed; they’ve shown us how good Mundy Spears can really be; and now they’ve brought the gifted Mr. Vaky to our attention. That ought to be good for some kind of award, don’t you think?
By Lee Blessing
Directed by Gillian Drake
Produced by Bay Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: One hour fifty-five minutes, with one intermission