Lee Blessing’s Drama Desk Award-nominated Chesapeake explores the art of politics and the politics of art.
Thursday, October 18, 2012
In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts funded an exhibition by artist Andres Serrano that included his infamous photograph “Piss Christ,” which earned the condemnation of Rev. Donald Wildmon and his conservative American Family Association. In that same year, when Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography show, The Perfect Moment, which featured homo-erotic and bondage imagery, was due to arrive at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Sen. Jesse Helms pushed the show into the national spotlight by criticizing it as immoral. (Also, Dread Scott Tyler, a student at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, found controversy with an art show in which an American flag was laid on the floor for people to step on.)
That collision of the vision of artists and politics got enmeshed in a “culture war” between, primarily, liberal and conservative values, fought over issues like abortion, gun laws and gay rights. The NEA funding controversy (Helms and other conservatives wanted to cut government funding) didn’t see resolution for another decade, in the Supreme Court case National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley (the plaintiffs being performance artists).
This is where playwright Lee Blessing picks up the story in his fictional 1999 Chesapeake, here produced by Carmel Bay Players, directed by Conrad Selvig and performed by Ron Genauer.
Genauer plays performance artist Kerr, who narrates the tale; he also stands in for supporting characters like conservative Virginia Rep. Therm Pooley, his ambitious wife and his congressional aide Stacey. Kerr describes his artistic trajectory, going back to when his father took him to museums as a kid. His home state was represented by a congressman who took aim at gays to score political points; Kerr, who is bisexual, moved to New York where he fell in love with the Futurists art movement. This gives Kerr license.
“Art is an act of will,” he says. “A form of domination. I dreamed of not entertaining audiences, but attacking them.”
He seems like a perverse radical, and for one performance art piece, he gets painted as one. He invited the audience, he tells us, to come on stage and strip off his clothing until he was naked. But during one such performance, someone in the audience seemed to achieve sexual gratification from it. That got reported by a newspaper, and picked up as a political issue by Rep. Pooley, who, during an election year, denigrates Kerr and the NEA for giving Kerr a grant, all the way to a Senate seat victory.
But is Kerr a perverse radical? He considered his nudity an homage to the human body as a creation of God.
“This was no Times Square peep show,” he insists. “This was art.”
Being used as a pawn to achieve the election of a Southern bigot haunts Kerr. But most of all, Pooley’s Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Lucky, haunts Kerr. He hears the dog barking and whining in his dreams, taunting him. For revenge, he plots to dognap Lucky as an act of political protest and performance art.
The script is clever and conversational and sometimes funny and profane in the first act. It isn’t so much about the NEA or the Futurists – it’s going after a more holistic approach. It’s also wordy. Kerr tells us: “[Lucky the dog] was a yellow-eyed, oily coated, Necco-wafer-colored email from hell that slipped from the TV screen directly into my hypothalamus and took over my autonomic nervous system. This dog barked inside me.”
Kudos to any actor who takes on such word-length and pull it off. John Farmanesh-Bocca did it deftly with PacRep’s This Wonderful Life, based on Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Genauer is good, but he slips often, like the gears of a car in need of a new clutch, during the rhythm of the lines. Not big slips, but enough to remind you that he’s an actor trying to remember lines. Genauer’s done solid work in ensemble pieces, and here he handled the multiple characters well, their diction, mannerisms and gestures. But man, the little slips were persistent.
The second act veers into a surreal and sentimental direction that relies on exposition and verbiage to an almost detrimental degree. It concerns the two ideological opponents – Kerr and Pooley – finding common understanding. Its message, if you look past the high concept that playwright Blessing constructs, is that both men can truly see the other’s point of view, the other’s life, in a shared space in which things like ideology recedes and empathy rises.
The play’s position is like a moderator of a debate. It doesn’t seem to favor any of the characters. That can seem wise if you’ve got a Buddhist-like sensibility about attachments. If you have a dog in the hunt (and in an election season, that’s probably most of us) it will be harder to respect its neutral distance.
CHESAPEAKE is performed 8pm Friday and Saturday, 2pm Sunday, through Oct. 28, at Carl Cherry Center, Fourth and Guadalupe, Carmel. $20. 238-1789, www.CarlCherryCenter.org.