'Chesapeake,' at Bay Theatre, is a strong close to stellar season

One-man-show plays on animal instincts, political ideology

April 28, 2011|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Bay Theatre scales new heights in its final production of the 2010-11 season with "Chesapeake," an enriching play that entertains audiences and, with an unforgettable one-man acting performance, redefines what a complete theater experience can become

It's been a stellar season of firsts for Bay Theatre, which garnered a first-ever Helen Hayes recommendation for its opening production, "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," followed by a Helen Hayes Best Actor Nomination for Bill Largess in its second show, "The Foreigner." And Lee Blessing's "Chesapeake" exceeded my expectations shared here two weeks ago.

The show, written in 1999, discusses National Endowment of the Arts funding, possibly in response to then-North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms' attack on the NEA. In planning the current season, Bay's artistic director Janet Luby apparently assumed NEA funding of artists would become relevant again. Liberals and conservatives will find ridiculous, amusing arguments on either side of the issue.

"Chesapeake" is named for a Chesapeake Bay retriever — Lord Ratliff of Luckymore, or "Rat" and sometimes "Lucky" for short — who is the beloved pet of Sen. Therm Pooley. In various guises, the retriever is central to the story.

The loose plot initially centers on NEAgrant-recipient Kerr, a New York performance artist who becomes the target of Southern conservative Pooley. Kerr performs his strip act to the Biblical accompaniment of recitations from the Songs of Solomon. Thus his NEA-funded act provokes Pooley's outrage and helps him narrowly win a Senate seat by ridiculing Kerr, whom Pooley continues to need to rally his supporters.

Each man debates public funding of the arts and the worth of art itself. Annoyed at being used, Kerr plots to kidnap Pooley's pet, a plan that goes awry and ends with Kerr and Lucky together falling to their deaths. Later Kerr is reincarnated as Pooley's new pet — Lucky 2, a human trapped in a Chesapeake Bay retriever's body.

A mutual fondness soon grows between dog and master, lending insight into love, courage, wisdom and other aspects of the human condition. In addition to learning about a dog's clear, unwavering focus well beyond our own, we discover that we all share animal instincts and urges, which occasionally distract us from our pursuit of loftier goals. We gain insight into ourselves and our limitations as we confront a dog's selfless love and courage that extends to saving lives indiscriminately, virtues well beyond any reasonable human aspirations.

Blessing's play works so extraordinarily well here because of immensely gifted actor Matthew Vaky, who is a superb storyteller who easily persuades us to suspend our prejudices against implausibility. Vaky plays about a dozen characters, starting as amiable, eccentric, self-assured and idealistic performance artist Kerr. Vaky convincingly argues both sides of the arts funding debate as both Kerr and Pooley, moving from the Senator's earlier ultra-conservative, homophobic views to an impassioned final, persuasive senatorial speech.

Vaky adopts a seductively warm Southern accent when he becomes Pooley's attractive female assistant Stacey, and a clipped, assured and emotionless speech pattern to portray Pooley's business-partner wife.

Vaky is forced to ignore the old show business maxim to avoid appearing with dogs or kids to transform himself into a dog that upstages all of his other characters. After becoming Pooley's new pet, Lucky 2, Vaky sniffs the air to discover the earthly delights of his environment; pants excitedly at his surroundings; happily wags his tail by moving his behind; raises his leg; and grunts ecstatically as his ear is stroked.

Creating such a tour de force performance required the strong directing skills of Gillian Drake, who again displays her total dedication to the playwright's art, as she demonstrated so convincingly in Bay's season opener, "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," that communicated a similar reverence for the art of creating drama.

Performances continue on weekends, Thursday through Sunday, through May 22. Call 410-268-1333 for tickets.

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