By Tom Wachunas
“I thought it would be very interesting, if somebody came back to life as the dog of their worst enemy. I got very excited when I realized I could kill my protagonist at the act break.” - playwright Lee Blessing, commenting on his play, Chesapeake
Considering the societal bad blood so profusely flowing in America of late, Canton’s Seat of the Pants Productions designed its Summer season of plays, under the collective name of ACTS OF DISSENT, to, in the words of Craig Joseph, “…dramatize and "storify" some of the conflicts that exist in America today in an effort to move hearts and open minds, thereby creating an avenue for increased understanding and potential dialogue.” Joseph stars in the current production of Chesapeake, a one-man show written by Lee Blessing in 1999.
The setting for Chesapeake harkens to the tumultuous “culture wars” that began during the late 1980s (and raged through the 1990s), when vitriolic conservatives, including North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and his dour cronies, sought to diminish or dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for its perceived promulgation of “indecent” art.
Here we meet Kerr, a bisexual artist whose NEA-supported performance piece draws the ire of one Therm Pooley, a blustery Southern conservative. After winning his Senate seat largely by stirring up public furor over Kerr’s “obscene” art, Pooley campaigns to shut down the NEA. The outraged Kerr in turn concocts an elaborate act of revenge – which he considers a performance art work in itself - and steals the Senator’s beloved Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Lord Ratliff of Luckymore, nicknamed ‘Lucky,’ and affectionately called ‘Rat’ by Pooley. But before Kerr can fully consummate his nefarious invasion of Pooley’s life, things go terribly wrong, taking a simultaneously bizarre and utterly hilarious turn when Lucky literally inhabits the body of Kerr. Or is it that Kerr inhabits Lucky? This entire performance is surely a metaphysical monologue.
As Kerr, Craig Joseph is brilliantly commanding. He immerses himself in a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of performing stamina to sustain an astonishing range of postures and vocal nuances. Something of a neurotic anarchist at heart, Kerr struggles through his pride and vulnerability to define and perhaps breach the shifting boundaries between art and life. He wags his shaggy tale with an incessant alacrity as endearing as it is quick and startling. So there’s a staccato intensity in the way Joseph pours out the confessional cascade of Kerr’s childhood memories, recollections of the other characters (including Pooley’s alluring personal assistant, and Pooley’s domineering wife), and the fiery allocutions of his aesthetic philosophy, however confused it may be. As viewers, we become witnesses to an increasingly funny but ironic and complex transformation. It’s an extraordinary morphing wherein Joseph’s most riveting sleight–of-personality is his portrayal of the self-aware Lucky. While seeing life from Pooley’s perspective, Lucky/Kerr also temporarily poses as God, hoping to direct Pooley’s NEA policy decisions.
In a future time and place, maybe this play will be regarded simply as a curious, sardonic caricature that skewered the self-righteous sloganeering and misguided visions of myopic politicians and artists alike. But as it is now, and beyond considering potential elimination of the NEA (always an easy target in the panoply of Federal budget expenditures), Blessing’s play (a blessing of a play) still speaks with palpable urgency and thought-provoking wit to our acrimonious times.
At the end I was reminded that now more than ever before, we need to start seeing each other not as adversarial agendas, but rather as faithful retrievers, so to speak, of cultural dignity and peace. These days, maybe America is like that old joke about the dyslexic agnostic insomniac who stayed up all night, thumbing through the Bible, looking for Dog.
Chesapeake, at the Black Box Theatre, located in GlenOak High School, 1801 Schneider Street Northeast, Canton, OH / Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, Sunday at 2PM, June 16 -18Tickets are $15, and can be purchased at www.chesapeakecanton.eventbrite.com