Refreshing Paws

In Lee Blessing's Chesapeake, a downtown New York performance artist wakes up one whimsical morning only to discover he has been reincarnated as a Chesapeake Bay retriever called Lucky. This strange hallucination gets even wilder when the performance artist/dog discovers that he is now owned by his archnemesis, a right-wing National Endowment for the Arts-slashing senator named Thurm Pooley. As bizarre as this tall tale might sound, Blessing's one-man script actually digs up and chews on a very old bone, namely the dog-eat-dog relationship between politics and art. The resulting Theater LaB production swings from priggish moralizing about the necessity of art to tender observations of the human heart.

Kerr (Todd Porter), Blessing's central character, turns into a cur of the four-legged variety. He opens Act I with a long, oftentimes condescending sermon on the value of art. We discover that he found his "passion" at ten, when his poor unsuspecting father, a man who "did not understand art," took him to a museum. There, Kerr witnessed performance art for the first time. The piece "1,000 Even Beats on a Frying Pan" entailed a man beating on a frying pan every seven seconds for two hours straight, and it apparently was so enraging that one old guy in the audience "tried to storm the crowd." But Kerr stuck it out and learned this moral: "Even failed art is better than no art at all."


Thankfully, his theory isn't put to the ultimate test here, as Chesapeake, under Jim Miller's direction, begins to pick up speed. What follows is an odd, engaging and surprisingly moving story about the power of art to change the heart.

Kerr grows up and creates his own eccentric act. In scruffy downtown theaters, he reads Solomon's Song from the Bible out loud while the audience marches onto the stage to remove his clothing. "I always wore as many garments as there were members of the audience," he tells us. Never sexual, the act inspired a kind of awe, he insists. And in fact, Porter's Kerr recites the biblical lines with such dark, resonating seriousness that he makes the idea of such a performance sound strangely powerful and even beautiful in all the ways that art should be.

Life is good for the industrious performer until a conservative Southern senator, the type who wants to "tax gays for their high-risk lifestyle," gets wind of what's happening on the government's dime. He plants a groaner in Kerr's audience, a guy who sounds as though he were enjoying more than the artistic quality of Kerr's nakedness. The police move in; the story hits the press, and the ensuing fight between Kerr and Senator Pooley becomes the story of "The Cum-er and the Critic." Kerr's funding is finished.

The revenge he plots is even stranger than his act; in fact, he sees it as the ultimate "performance piece." He'll kidnap the senator's Chesapeake Bay retriever and steal the poor hound away to a remote cabin, thus robbing the politician of one of his most valuable political assets, his adoring dog. Of course the plan goes south as soon as Kerr shoots himself in the foot with animal tranquilizer. There's a chase involving a beautiful right-wing female politician, a big happy dog and a waterfall that ends up killing both Kerr and the dog. The story is so outrageous that it's often hard to follow, but it's also amusing and just sane enough to make one curiouser and curiouser.

Act II is the stronger half of the show. Kerr comes back as a dog nicknamed Lucky, chosen by Pooley to replace his first beloved Lucky. He's his own enemy's best friend. What makes the writing so strong are the uncanny observations Blessing makes about what life must be like for a dog. Kerr-turned-Lucky's fanciful monologues on how the world smells through a dog's powerhouse nostrils create some of the most surprising, compelling and sustained moments of the night. Here, Porter finally takes firm hold of the material and makes his man-dog humble, amusing and real. He rolls on the ground, lifts his leg and sniffs at the air with abandon.

What is most unforeseen is the new perspective Kerr gets on Pooley. Not only does he find himself always "staring at [the senator's] knees," but he becomes privy to Pooley's deepest secrets, for Pooley is a true dog lover and Kerr becomes the object of his unconditional love. And though he starts out wanting to teach Pooley about the importance of art, it is Kerr who learns an important lesson: Life is precious, but one must be truly fearless to grasp the depth of all that it has to offer.

Unexpected and even magical in moments, Chesapeake eventually gets at something truly important: Art is private, revelatory and at its best, life-changing. Such are the unlikely musings of a canine and a politician.

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Lee Williams