Remy Bumppo romp: Blessing’s ‘Chesapeake’ evades leash, mutes bark of political theater
Review: “Chesapeake” by Lee Blessing, produced by Remy Bumppo Theatre at Greenhouse Theatre Center through April 29 ***
By Lawrence B. Johnson
What has always fascinated me about political theater – in an annoying sort of way – is the paradox of its self-satisfied, indeed self-righteous certainty. What I actually like about Lee Blessing’s monodrama-for-the-choir “Chesapeake,” and especially Greg Matthew Anderson’s doggedly human performance for Remy Bumppo Theatre, is that you’re never quite sure where this shaggy-dog story is going to land.
The title of Blessing’s 1999 one-man play refers to a breed of dogs famous for their prowess as retrievers. The play itself was inspired by what essentially amounted to a First Amendment clash in the 1990s between the National Endowment for the Arts and a group of performance artists who came to be known as the NEA Four: Karen Finley, Tim Miller, Holly Hughes and John Fleck.
All of them saw their NEA funding revoked in 1990 on the grounds that their performances expressed either sadomasochism or homoeroticism and thus violated the NEA’s Decency Clause. With “Chesapeake,” Blessing calls into question not only the moral posture but, more to the point, also the political motivation of those who set standards of purity and appropriateness in the name of social norms and the taxpayer.
Blessing’s one-man assault on the bulwark of “decency” plays out in the person of a performance artist called Kerr, whose art involves inviting audience members to remove his clothing one item at a time until he’s nude. (I hasten to add that, in the person of Kerr, actor Greg Matthew Anderson only describes the routine; he doesn’t shed anything.) Kerr’s act comes to the attention of a Southern politician who aspires to the U.S. Senate and makes the artist’s shocking public display the central plank in his platform. He wins the election.
Once in the Senate, the moralizing politico sets out to eliminate the NEA. For more than obvious reasons, Kerr feels he has been used. He decides to strike back where it hurts, by dog-napping the senator’s beloved Chesapeake. To say all does not go according to plan would be a gross understatement; and thereby hangs the tale.
As irate performance artist, smug politician and, yes, prodigious pooch, Anderson scores a theatrical trifecta. He quickly brings us into Kerr’s camp with an endearing account of the actor’s youth and how he got the performance bug in the first place. The seductive thing about Blessing’s play is that it’s not a monochromatic harangue, but a layered portrait of the artist as a young man who suddenly finds himself storming the barricades of oppression. And he’s about as effective at that as you or I would be.
The show’s staging, one stool and a glass (perhaps the right word is dish) of water, rises to a dramatic level through JR Lederle’s imaginative lighting. Similarly, director Shawn Douglass moves Anderson about the stage just enough to energize the monologue and define shifts in viewpoint but not enough to blur the actor’s finely honed delivery.
It terms of sheer text, it’s a huge assignment. And end to end, Anderson’s zealous, bright-eyed, open-hearted impersonation of Kerr is a joy to watch. Kerr just wants to do what performance artists do: express himself and connect with the world. It isn’t obscene or salacious, he insists. There was never an orgasm. OK, once. There was this one guy…but in retrospect, Kerr muses, that might have been part of a setup.
Turning 90 degrees, on a dime, Anderson morphs into the calculating politico, the good ol’ boy from Kerr’s home state, who articulates his cynical view in a measured Southern accent. Then a further 90 degrees and Kerr inhabits – no woofin’ – the senator’s dog. Before you say, “Oh, please,” just remember: You shouldn’t judge a fellow creature until you’ve walked in his paws. I’ll admit the playwright is scratching at the door of fantasy here, but the clever Anderson deserves to be cut some leash.
So where does all this take us, this journey on the moral high road? Pretty much to the conclusion of all political theater. The righteous walk this way, whether on two legs or four. The particular message of “Chesapeake” is that art makes one a better person. I’m still gnawing on that. It seems so – I don’t know – dogmatic.
- Performance location, dates and times: Go to TheatreinChicago.com
- Study up on the history of the play: Remy Bumppo “Chesapeake” field guide
- Coverage of the 1990 flap: Read it in the Los Angeles Times
- Legal backgrounder on NEA v. Finley: Read it at Northwestern.edu
Photo captions and credits: Home page and descending: Greg Matthew Anderson as Kerr. (Photo by Johnny Knight)