Currently on stage at the City's Hamburg Studio Theatre is actor David Wilson Barnes, nimbly performing this one man play written by Lee Blessing (A Walk in the Woods, Thief River, Cobb) . Many surprises are in store for the audience, including, most refreshingly, a political story that can be appreciated by all viewers, no matter what their party affiliation. Presented with a boatload of humor, the political point (preserving funding of the arts) is delivered without a heavy hand and at times sits in the background while Barnes presents the fantastical story of a performance artist named Kerr, a senator bent on desiccating NEA funding, and the politician's Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Lord Ratliff of Luckimore, or Lucky for short.
As Kerr, Barnes begins with a lesson on the history of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever breed, then segues into a description of Kerr's own background, including the road he took to becoming a performance artist. The character of Thurm Pooley is introduced, a southern politician who uses his companion retriever Lucky as a tool for creating his homey public image. The barking we hear, and Kerr's reaction to it ("he barked inside my head"), foretells a complicated relationship among these three characters. Indeed, it's not long before we get to a key plot turn; reacting to the personal affront of having his own NEA funding withdrawn, Kerr decides to protest by kidnapping Lucky. The crime will be videotaped as a performance piece and is meant to be only a temporary predicament. Of course, many things go wrong, and a tragedy occurs. The result of these events, as presented in the show's second act, takes on a preposterous dimension, but Barnes simply climbs to the next level of his acting talent without giving anyone time to bemoan the fact that we have left reality.
Barnes succeeds as he is called upon to portray several characters, and he continues to engage the audience throughout this play that is a bit longer than most one person shows. The intimate atmosphere of the Hamburg Studio Theatre, which puts the audience nearly on top of the stage and the actor, assists in the connection Barnes makes with the audience, and the brisk pace (kudos to director Lou Jacob) also helps. However, most of the credit must go to Barnes for his impressive accomplishment in delivering a very natural and very funny presentation of Blessing's story. It's simply a joy to watch this actor perform.
The very simple but effective two-level set with a brick wall and a railing by Tony Ferrieri allows Barnes to move about unencumbered and yet without looking like he's pacing or moving just for the sake of moving. The set also provides a perfect framework for the excellent lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski, which is distinguished in many scenes. Sound design by Dave Bjornson harmonizes with the other creatives to make a simple yet solid work.
Lee Blessing's Chesapeake deals with a very important issue. Since he's pretty much "preaching to the choir," his very humorous and quirky tale easily makes its point by making us grateful for support for the arts and for the people who care enough to write about it.
Chesapeake runs through May 30 on the Hamburg Studio Theatre stage of Pittsburgh City Theatre. For tickets and performance information, call 412.431.CITY or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org.