In Lee Blessing's one-man show, the world is going to the dogs. And that's the good news.
Jerry Vogel stars as performance artist Kerr in this sprawling monolog, which pits a liberal performance artist against a conservative U.S. Congressman. Mr. Vogel is delightful and dramatic in each role, in a script that's insightful, funny and a fine modern fable. The portrayal of the modern right-wing movement reinforces our worst fears, as Congressman Therm Pooley uses Kerr as a stepping stone to higher office. And, as freshly-minted Senator Pooley seems to divine, Kerr will be bound to him through this life, and the next.
The prospect is brought frighteningly alive by director Jason Cannon (who also created the dramatic lighting). And Chesapeake easily finds its path through the legacy of Spalding Gray, and through magical realism, before its two hours and ten minutes are up. Kerr works through his boyhood, haunted by the barking of the Senator's loyal Chesapeake Retriever, Lucky. And when a dog-napping goes awry, we begin to wonder if Kerr is any brighter than cur.
Then, Mr. Vogel's monolog flies into a tailspin of fatalism, reflecting the same sort of panic Spalding Gray described, being swept out from shore in Swimming To Cambodia. It's virtually as effective here. And, thanks to Lee Blessing's sense of humor, this fatalism is cleverly turned in to a fine act one curtain line.
Blessing's script is excellent in its reflections on why marriages fall apart, and very funny describing the inner life of dogs. Though artist Kerr seems irrevocably adolescent in act one, Senator Pooley becomes quite the spell-binder on the flip-side of the show. There's also a fine theme at work regarding the dangers of "neoteny" (of perpetual childishness, or puppy-hood): the story of wolves - bred for their harmless, comedic qualities into dogs - seems to parallel a story that shows how a youthful, rebellious spirit enlivens the artist.
A frequent theatregoer could be forgiven for groaning slightly during a long harangue in favor of the National Endowment for the Arts, and perhaps for wondering why Kerr is somewhat less compelling than Pooley. The NEA sections amount to 'preaching to the choir,' and the profile of Kerr may be a bit demeaning to the artistic spirit. Taken in combination with the best fate of this artist as government's beneficiary, it's a "patronizing" view indeed.
But these are things we might quibble over at a sidewalk café. Chesapeake creates a lavish, lush, persistent beauty with Mr. Vogel's recitation from the Song of Solomon (his character draws the ire of Congress for speaking the most seductive words of the Bible during a striptease). We are snapped to attention as we realize Kerr is also being repressed by the barking of Lucky in act one, just as his relationship with his father becomes funny as well as touching. And through all these events, Mr. Vogel grows increasingly captivating.
There is a fine art to irony, which is rarely attained in the performing arts. Here, Lee Blessing and Jerry Vogel mesh beautifully together as playwright and actor (through director Cannon) to make the fates of Kerr and Pooley hauntingly and ironically attractive, despite their obvious human flaws. Kerr grows to accept his role, as dependent on authority. Pooley turns from the politics of exclusion, only to find himself murderously excluded from his own inner circle.
Chesapeake continues through March 20th, 2005 in St. Louis at the Theatre at St. John's, in the Central West End. Produced by the HotCity Theatre's new Greenhouse branch. For information, call (314) 482-9125.