Lee Blessing’s one-actor play recounts the struggle a performance artist has with her own creative urges, as well as a posturing, anti-gay senator, before morphing into a strange, bold metaphysical meditation.
Though Blessing himself does not star in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of "Chesapeake", continuing through Dec. 16 at the Arsenal for the Arts in Watertown, his voice is clear and distinct, and is convincingly delivered by Georgia Lyman in an energetic performance that throws white-hot sparks and is replete with richly nuanced moments.
Lyman plays Kerr, the performance artist whose work is deemed "pornographic" by Sen. Therm Pooley, a Southern gent who seems to be a conflation of real-life senators Jesse Helms (an ardent foe of the National Endowment of the Arts who attempted to defund the NEA, partly because he objected to the work of gay photographer Richard Mapplethorpe) and Strom Thurmond. Pooley isn’t actually convinced of his own claims that Kerr’s work is obscene, but he knows that casting the bisexual artist in the light of a culture-war guerilla and pervert will win him votes come election day. (Surely this element of "Chesapeake" is informed by Blessing himself having received NEA grants in the 1980s, when Helms was at his raging, homophobic peak.)
The injury that rounds out the insult of Pooley’s victory is a clandestine meeting with the senator. Pooley offers Kerr a multicity tour -- though it’s to be confined to Northern cities, so as not to offend the sensibilities of upright Southern folk. As for her NEA grant, well, Kerr need not concern herself unduly: Poole has no interest in actually abolishing the grant-making body, given that its mere existence energizes his base so effectively.
What’s an artist to do, especially an artist who admires the confrontational work of turn-of-the-last-century "futurists?" Kerr decides that her next project will be a video of herself stealing the senator’s dog, a Chesapeake retriever named Lucky.
The symbolism of the dog, which stands in for the snarling cur in Kerr’s own soul (cur; Kerr; get it?), is well played, and the first act coalesces with looping narrative strands around this central image. Blessing’s writing is elegant, his wordplay funny and sleek and sometimes ingenious. Lyman knows just how and when to lean into the text, and when to lean back; her interpretation is like a dance of the seven veils, with irony and lust and self-deprecation and sincere devotion to capital-A Art all fluttering about a seething core of anger and indignation at the ignorance and hostility with which certain segments of Americana view the hard work of challenging convention and re-interpreting internal and external reality.
When the play suddenly transforms, in Act II, into something quite different -- something startling, with the story shooting on a bizarre and fantastical tangent -- we stop believing in the reality of the story, which had previously seemed so grounded and realistic, and have no recourse but to surrender disbelief and subscribe to the play’s new set of rules: Myth replaces anecdote, and metaphysics steps in where personal testimony once stood. This play does what capital-A Art should: It pushes its audience into places that seem uncomfortable and, for some, perhaps a little silly. Does this play grow into its paws in the challenging, provocative second act? Or does it lose the thread, veering away from the central canine motif and coming to resemble something less dogged and determined? One senses that this play is meant to keep its nose to the ground, following a scent into whatever thickets it might lead; but one wonders whether it becomes instead something almost feline in the way it twists and leaps -- a leopard attempting to change its spots?
Each viewer will have her own opinion here. That, of course, it the entire point. Meantime, there are definite pokes and prods built into the play that allow it to scrutinize everything -- politics, class, even Art and the artist -- with a skeptical, critical, and twinkling eye. It also makes a water-tight argument for the necessity of a publicly funded arts program that should never shy from supporting those who ask us tough questions in fearless, and sometimes even offensive, ways.