The shallowness of Lee Blessing’s approach to this sad (if noisy) period in the history of our nation’s lack of support for the arts overlooks the victory won by the conservatives.
Chesapeake by Lee Blessing. Directed by Doug Lockwood. Staged by New Repertory Theatre. At Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through December 16.
By Iris Fanger.
Here’s the conundrum: does a theater fan sit through an ill-conceived play for the performance of an actor he/she admires? New Repertory Theatre (New Rep), no doubt looking for a one-hander to balance out its budget, made the unfortunate choice to produce Lee Blessing’s Chesapeake, a quasi-comic attack on the foibles of our elected officials in Congress (a cheap shot because it’s so easy), but then came up golden by casting local performer Georgia Lyman to carry the mediocre script’s freight.
It’s no problem to rhapsodize about the grace, beauty, and stage-smarts of Lyman, a self-confident, young actor who inevitably takes command of the playing space, even at times when she’s surrounded on stage by other performers. She’s fearlessly physical, not afraid to sling her body into surprising contortions, to prowl the perimeters of the stage as if she was an animal marking out her territory. She has an agile glint in her eyes, a flair for spontaneity, a talent at finding expressions that telegraph what is going through the character’s head. For this outing, she is shameless in enlisting the sympathy of the audience, right from the top, by coming out to greet the audience before the house lights go down and wheedling us to turn off our cell phones. A sign that this play needs all the sympathy it can get.
What is Chesapeake about, one might ask? On the surface, the subject is the acrimonious “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, with a focus on the efforts of various U.S. congressmen to influence the funding decisions made by the National Endowment for the Arts. Several of these men took offense at what they deemed pornography (nudity on stage and various other actions) and the slandering of religion (the submerging of a crucifix in a jar of urine) by NEA-backed artists. The officials ordered that the grants paid with tax payers’ dollars be rescinded. Issues of free speech and artists’ rights were set against the prevailing standards of morality (at least among certain outspoken segments of society), producing plenty of self-righteous indignation on both sides of the public fracas.
In Chesapeake, Blessing creates two characters—three in reality: the performance artist, Kerr, a young woman who gets off by taking it all off in public and displaying her genitals, and a Southern senator named Therm Pooley, a people-not-like-us hater but dog lover, who leads the fight against her and her supposedly edgy artistic vision. To name the third is to risk becoming a spoiler, in case anyone cares to sit through the show. Lyman takes on the three portrayals (also becoming a fourth minor character, the lithe, young assistant to the Senator) with ease, drumming up a Southern accent that drips corn pone goofiness.
The action, daft as it seems, turns on Kerr’s decision to take revenge on the Senator by kidnapping his beloved dog and the descent into theatrical madness that absurd move ensues. If it were not for Lyman’s ingenious performance, staged under the careful direction of Doug Lockwood, the evening would have been a walker-outer.
As for the incisive polemics, Blessing smothers them in over-bearing clichés and over-loaded characterizations. No matter how one feels about the right and wrong of the morality versus the arts confrontation, the author makes Kerr so appealing and the Senator the repository of so much weird hypocrisy (the latter hid under his guise as a champion of the people) that any possible provocation is clubbed to death. And nothing fictional comes close to the real life antics of political folks like General Petraeus and former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards.
The shallowness of Blessing’s approach to this sad (if noisy) period in the history of our nation’s lack of support for the arts overlooks the victory won by the conservatives, a triumph that went beyond whether certain artists were funded or not. In order to steer clear of any possible repeat debacle, the NEA eliminated programs that gave money to individual artists. Moreover, a malaise of caution descended on the agency’s grant-making decisions. If there’s a meaningful drama waiting to be written about the contretemps, and what it says about American culture, it has yet to be produced.