Saturday, October 9, 2010

This Time It's Personal

This Time It’s Personal

By Tom Wachunas

Last night I heard a grown man cry fire in a crowded theater. He incited the attending throng of opinions, dispositions, biases, and moral stances within the confines of my assumed solid frames of reference about art and artists to rush wildly hither and yon, and they’re still smoldering. A riot of thinking broke out.

The man in question is Craig Joseph, who played the lead in Lee Blessing’s stage satire about government arts funding practices, “Chesapeake,” now showing at the Kathleen Howland Theatre in downtown Canton. Did I say ‘played the lead’? Mr. Joseph IS the play, as it’s a one-man affair. So it would be a hollow compliment to say you can’t take your eyes off him. There’s nothing else to look at in this production – no set, no props (other than the startlingly real fidelity of off-stage dog barks), no lighting changes. This nearly two-hour (with an intermission) monologue is delivered in a black box. And yet it explodes with all the complicated colors and textures of clashing ideas and personalities. Joseph is a proverbial and otherwise riveting man of a thousand faces (and voices to match) who, under the direction of Ingrid DeSanctis, brings Blessing’s tale – maddeningly compelling and preposterous – to cantankerous and hilarious life.

“Chesapeake” is the story of performance artist Kerr (pronounced cur) who has been stripped of his NEA grant through the machinations of a powerful conservative homophobic congressman from Virginia, Therm Pooley. Kerr decides to turn his plight into his finest performance piece ever by kidnapping the Senator’s beloved Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Lucky (aka ‘Rat’), and turning the nationally popular pet against his master. By the end of act one, Kerr’s plot backfires and results in tragedy. Act two is an unexpected romp into surreal if not magical transformations for both Pooley and his nemesis.

The content here is eloquently – even poetically – written, and is unmistakably drawn from the volatile 1980s when Senator Jesse Helms waged his war against the ‘curs’ of the art world who used NEA funding to foist their ‘despicable’ and ‘immoral’ art on the outraged masses (who at the time, by the way, were paying 88 cents a year, per capita, for the privilege). This prompted a bevy of guerilla art attacks on the conservative, big-money art establishments of the day – translated here into Kerr’s attack on Pooley. Blessing presents a picture of the issues that in some ways undermines what would appear to be his overarching support for uncensored government subsidizing of the arts – a sabotage of sorts. On the one hand, his “hero” Kerr unapologetically celebrates deliberately inflammatory and vapid art content, with the self-important, fiery declaration, “even failed art is better than no art at all.” So then on the other hand, Kerr’s teary-eyed, loving prayer (to a God whose existence he doubts) for embracing the healing power of art to enlarge and enrich us comes off slightly more as insipid moralizing than real heroism. He’s an adult who claims his sacred right to be forever the incarnation of neoteny – a permanent juvenile, a perpetual puppy. If nothing else, the play brings to light our societal confusion of rights with capacities.

Amid all the personal, philosophical, and religious tensions entwined in this topical ‘fiction’ that still cry for resolution, Craig Joseph has completely invested himself in the intricate, often beautiful verbiage, and the succinct portraits of the characters that surround Kerr. Joseph does so with memorable panache, and an astonishingly keen ability to balance both comedic absurdities and searing drama with startling credibility. He’s the real hero of the evening.

Photo: Craig Joseph, who plays Kerr in Lee Blessing’s “Chesapeake.” At the Kathleen Howland Theatre, located in the lower level of Second April Galerie, 324 Cleveland Ave. NW in downtown Canton. Performances run Oct. 8 – 17, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2:30 PM. Admission $10 at the door.

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