A loopy cri de coeur for the National Endowment for the Arts, Chesapeake (presented by New Repertory Theatre through December 16) is more shaggy dog story than dramatic achievement. Full of fervor for public funding of the arts, Lee Blessing's 1999 one-person testament likens theatrical exploration to the pioneering exploits of Lewis and Clark — though the play is more redolent of Lewis and Martin. Still, if the work is silly, it isn't boring. And at the Arsenal Center for the Arts' Black Box, it's having the stuffing acted out of it by Georgia Lyman, who, bursting about the space like a frisky pooch in a too-small kennel, portrays, among other personae, a performance artist named Kerr and a cur named Lord Ratliff of Luckymore. (The dog is a Chesapeake Bay retriever, and Lyman, despite a frumpy costume, is appropriately fetching.)
Kerr can be a man or a woman (the role was originated by Mark Linn-Baker). But whatever the artist's gender, he/she has come to public notice by reciting the Song of Solomon while inviting audience members to come up on stage and remove his/her garments. When one spectator reportedly gets too big an erotic charge from this, Kerr becomes the target of Therm Pooley, a fulminating Southern congressman running for the Senate. Decrying the "poor-nography" of the performance while wagging his beloved dog along the campaign trail, Pooley manages to win. And Kerr, feeling at once attacked and used, resolves to kidnap the senator's pet, the grand plan being to turn the caper into a guerrilla act of outlaw art comparable to those of the early-20th-century Futurists. Alas, things go awry, and Kerr is reincarnated as a woofer.
Whether you're talking art, politics, or the bonding of man and beast, Blessing is preaching to the choir. And his sermon, in addition to being fantastical, is too long. Still, you can't deny the playwright's imagination. And you have to admire an actor who can memorize the ramble, much less pull it off. So for those with a yen to watch Lyman fleetly leap the furniture, raptly intone the spiciest part of the Bible, deftly dish the cornpone, and simulate vigorous canine sex with a music stand, well, Jesse Helms isn't here to stop you.
CHESAPEAKE:: Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St, Watertown :: Through December 16 :: $36 :: 617.923.0100 or newrep.org
, Theater, review, New Repertory Theatre