Theater preview: 'Chesapeake' is one-man political comedy

Actor in Bay Theatre production plays senator, artist and retriever

April 12, 2011|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Bay Theatre has gotten a strong early reception for "Chesapeake," the fourth and final show of its season, and has extended the one-man political comedy after selling out several shows even before the April 15 opening.

Lee Blessing's "Chesapeake" is described in Bay's season brochure as a quirky political story in which star actor Matthew Vaky plays several comic roles including a Southern, right-wing U.S. Senator and a liberal performance artist who undergoes a mysterious transformation. By the end of the play, the actor has become a pet Chesapeake Bay retriever who discusses politics, marriage and the inner life of dogs.

The show is a smart choice to end the theater's regular 2010-11 season, as evidenced by its strong start; "Chesapeake" will run an extra week, through May 22.

Prior to a rehearsal last week, "Chesapeake" director Gillian Drake, who also directed Bay's "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" opener in October, chatted about the show with Vaky to lend insight into the unique appeal the show. Together, they discussed what they had learned about each other and the play since mid-February, when they began their rehearsal schedule of at least 26 hours per week.

Vaky said he believes fate played in his being cast in this play because he had prior connections to playwright Blessing and to director Drake. The son of a U S State Department agent, Vaky grew up in Colombia, South America and as an adult moved to Minneapolis where he studied play writing with Lee Blessing.

In these workshops, Vaky found Blessing to be "supportive and completely accessible." Vaky graduated with an MFA in Theater from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where director Drake also graduated with an MFA in directing.

Casting the right actor in a one-man play is crucial, as is the rapport between actor and director. It is also essential that director and actor share respect and a growing fascination for the play and its creator.

Vaky said it is a unique experience to be the sole actor in a play.

"I have 56 pages of nonstop talking. The words are so lively with instantaneous moving from one character to another. At one point I'm playing five characters simultaneously," he said. "In a regular play you develop rapport with other actors and get ideas about your characters from each other. In a one-person show you and the director discover the character together. The director becomes both actor and audience so that the audience is going to be your acting partner."

Bay Theatre artistic director Janet Luby, who set up the pre-opening interview, asked director Drake to discuss what the play "Chesapeake" is actually about.

Drake said, "Blessing's play is about a conservative senator and a liberal artist, both convinced they are right. Blessing says these conservatives and liberals are our audience. With an open hand Blessing forces both sides to come together and get off fundamentalist strengths. He gets people to realize that we're all right when we open our hands.

"This opening hands social transformative process is not easy," she added, "but through it we can transform even difficult moments into something beautiful. And the way to do that is through love which is what this play is really about."

I have limited knowledge of Blessing's plays, having enjoyed only two of his works. A few seasons back Colonial Players offered a production of "Two Rooms" which explored the problems of an expatriate American who was in the wrong country at the wrong time. He expressed his hope and fear from his cramped cell room while his wife simulated his confinement space in a room she constructed in their home, which made for a powerful drama.

Later in November 2009, the Naval Academy's Masqueraders' production of "Fortinbras" — a political satire that picks up where Shakespeare's "Hamlet" leaves off — echoed to me the contrast between the Bush and Obama administrations. I was struck at playwright Blessing's magically envisioning in 1991 a leader who was Fortinbras-like inclined to act before considering all ramifications and a Hamlet-like leader who might weigh every aspect of a problem before reaching a decision.

My experience with these two plays heightens my anticipation of enjoying "Chesapeake," Blessing's realistic 1999 fable in which we will discover how the dramatic skills of the performing artist compare with those of the politician.

Performance times are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sunday matinees at 3 pm. Tickets are $30 for general admission and $25 for seniors and students. For reservations call 410-268-1333 or online at baytheatre.org and by email at info@baytheatre.org.

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