BWW Review: CHESAPEAKE: Man's Best Friend with a Twist
Written by Lee Blessing, Directed by Doug Lockwood; Scenic and Lighting Designer, Deb Sullivan; Costume Designer, Adrienne Carlile; Sound Designer, David Reiffel; Jayscott Crosley, Production Stage Manager
CAST: Georgia Lyman (Kerr)
Lee Blessing's 1999 play Chesapeake was written with a male protagonist in mind, but with a gender-neutral name like Kerr, nothing is lost – and I would argue much is gained – by featuring an actress in the role, especially when said actress is the delightful and multi-talented Georgia Lyman. She takes command of the audience in the black box theater at New Rep as if we have all been invited into her living room to watch her interpretation of a performance artist on a mission. In addition to playing the storyteller Kerr, Lyman distinctively breathes life into conservative politician Therm Pooley, his haughty wife, an ambitious young female aide, and his loyal, obedient dog Lucky, a pedigreed Chesapeake Bay Retriever.
Reflecting the political tug-of-war over funding for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) in the 1980s and '90s, Chesapeake explores the never-ending questions about what is art and what kind of art deserves public funds. A provocative performance artist bumps up against a southern Congressman hoping to punch his ticket to the senate by taking a ride on the anti-pornography train. Fueled by Kerr's delivery of the Bible's "The Song of Solomon" while inviting spectators to remove articles of her clothing, Pooley is victorious in his election campaign, compelling Kerr to counterattack by plotting a dog-napping. The stakes are high as, in addition to being a beloved family pet, Lucky is a powerful political asset, but things don't go exactly as Kerr had planned.
However, as luck and the fates would have it, when one door closes, another one opens, affording Kerr an opportunity to have an unforeseen impact on Pooley's position vis-à-vis the NEA funding. Having previously hoped only to ruin his political career, she focuses on a higher cause with a little help from a canine and a higher power. I am obliged to be opaque so as not to spoil the strange twists in the second act, but be assured that Kerr's transformation is brilliantly performed by Lyman, making it a joy to willingly suspend disbelief at the utter ridiculousness of it all.
In the fine tradition of solo artists like Lily Tomlin and Tracey Ullman, Lyman connects with the audience in a natural, relaxed way, making eye contact and speaking conversationally, almost as if there is no script. Not only does she continuously perambulate the small, square platform stage, but she leaves its confines several times to stand on the stairs in the center aisle, frequently stepping into the personal space of others. Of course, the black box is ideal for the needed intimacy suggested by Lyman's character (you could almost reach out to pet the dog) and she practically begs for it with a twinkle in her eye and a waggle of her behind. At all times, she is engaging and endearing, even in the most bizarre moments of Blessing's story, and makes her hard work look easy. Credit Director Doug Lockwood with giving Lyman plenty of room to run wild, while occasionally yanking on her leash to instill a little decorum.
Deb Sullivan covers the stage with a map-like rendering of Chesapeake Bay and her lighting design offers a variety of sequences to reflect different moods and events, the most startling of which is a brilliant flash in combination with Sound Designer David Reiffel's BOOM! Reiffel also provides authentically annoying barking dog sounds as atmospheric background. Adrienne Carlile costumes Lyman in a funky outfit befitting her provocative performance artist persona.
Chesapeake makes a strong political statement while masquerading as a very funny play. In the hands of Lockwood and Lyman, each of the characterizations is given dignity and shown some respect for their principles, no matter how ill-conceived or abhorrent they may appear to us in our bluest of blue states. The sad thing is that we keep repeating our history, that the culture war of twenty plus years ago was fought again in this election cycle. The good news is that with this Boston premiere, New Rep puts the case back in the public eye, reminding their audience that patrons of the arts have to remain vigilant and keep supporting the work that we love.