Chicago Theater Review: CHESAPEAKE (Remy Bumppo at the Greenhouse Theater)

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by Dan Zeff on April 5, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Plenty of negatives can be directed toward Lee Blessing’s Chesapeake, which suffers from personality disorder: Is it a satire? A comedy? A fantasy? Does it even know, or care? Fortunately, these critical reservations are mostly disarmed by Greg Matthew Anderson’s brilliant performance. This is a good thing because Mr. Anderson is the entire cast in Remy Bumppo’s production at the Greenhouse Theater.

Anderson plays a bisexual artist named Kerr, whose performance piece consists of reciting the Song of Solomon from the Bible while being disrobed by the audience until he is naked on stage. Kerr is caught in a maelstrom of controversy because he’s received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and Kerr’s nemesis – arch conservative Southern senator Thurm Pooley – uses the controversial Kerr as a scapegoat to cut spending for the NEA and curry favor with conservative voters.

Blessing’s title refers to a breed of retriever dog, one of which is an animal named Lucky who is Pooley’s pet. Kerr plots to kidnap Lucky in retaliation for the senator’s hostility but the kidnapping goes wrong and eventually Kerr is killed along with the dog and reincarnated as Lucky Two. This re-embodied Lucky may look like a dog but he thinks and acts like a human being and dominates the baffled senator, who eventually yields to the pooch’s astonishing human powers.

The best part of the play is the first act, a light but informative tour of performance art and its conflict with public officials who resent the performance people as purveyors of pornography. The longer second act is bogged down in Kerr’s transformation into Lucky 2, which may all be a dream. Unfortunately, Blessing isn’t clear on this essential point.

Chesapeake Remy BumppoChesapeake was first staged in 1999 when conflicts between cutting edge performance artists and Congress were big news, with the NEA caught in the middle. The big question of the day was this: Should public money be used to sponsor art and, if so, how far can politicians and the government go to reject funding for art which they consider offensive or too experimental? Blessing sides with the performance artists – no surprise there. The conservative politicians like Pooley (a stand-in for Jesse Helms, remember him?) are portrayed as narrow-minded and cynical manipulators of this hot button issue for their own political gain. Chesapeake must have gone down very smoothly with liberals.

The NEA funding for the arts may have roiled the cultural waters in the late 1900’s but one doesn’t read too much about it today. Performance Theater that outraged many people back then scarcely would turn a hair in most urban audiences today, so this satire is already dated. This play needed to be seen 10-12 years ago when its impact would have been maximized.

Chesapeake Remy BumppoWhat Chesapeake loses as a coherent play it gains as a stunning piece of acting by Anderson. One-actor shows have always filled me with admiration. A single performer has to carry the entire play, with no colleagues on stage for support, plus the amount of memorization has to be daunting. The performer not only must present the script alone, he has to make it a dramatic and theatrical experience and not just a recitation. And that’s where Anderson comes up big.

Anderson is a youthful presence on stage and a terrifically ingratiating performer. The play is most successful when it makes the audience laugh and Anderson is a superb comic actor. His self-deprecating rendering of Kerr’s exploits in performance art in the first act had the chuckling spectators in the palm of his hand. Anderson morphs beautifully from character to character, mainly the Southern senator (who sounds like Dr. Phil), the senator’s calculating wife, and his nubile female assistant with bedroom eyes for the senator. Anderson is at his best impersonating Lucky, wonderfully capturing canine mannerisms mixed with human sensibilities. We buy into Anderson the dog as easily as we do Kerr the performance artist.

Chesapeake Remy BumppoThe play is presented on a bare stage that features a slight raised wooden platform and a single chair and a glass of water, which provides a bit of unexpected comedy (set design by Timothy Mann). Jacqueline Firkins designed Anderson’s single casual costume. JR Lederle’s lighting is almost a character in the action, guiding the viewer from day or night and back again, sometimes with startling shifts in lighting intensity. The sound design by Rick Sims relies heavily on very loud barking.

Shawn Douglass directs the play and he must share credit with Anderson for bringing out the humor in the play. There is nothing either man can do about the narrative’s improbabilities and uneasy shifts.

Chesapeake Remy BumppoWe have now been treated to two brilliant-one man shows this season: Timothy Kane in An Iliad at the Court Theatre and now Anderson. While the now shuttered Iliad is a vastly more superior play, both entertainments contain must-see evenings of acting, and Anderson is still on stage now to be appreciated and applauded.

photos by Johnny Knight

Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at the Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago
scheduled to end on April 29
for tickets, or call 773-404-7336

for info on this and other Chicago theater, visit


Nick Sandys April 5, 2012 at 1:31 pm


Thanks so much for coming to see Chesapeake last night, and I am happy to see that you enjoyed Greg’s delightful performance and Shawn’s nuanced direction of a tricky play. However, I am sorry that you didn’t find the play itself successful, or indeed relevant to today’s arts funding crisis. Only last week the Republican-led Congress proposed their own version of a budget which included a measure for privatizing the NEA, thus eliminating all “federal” support for the arts. Similarly, the Illinois arts advocates are in full action as the mayor constructs his “Arts Plan” for the city right now. Not to mention the fact that Mike Daisey’s playing with “facts” in his Steve Jobs monologue has become a national discussion of arts, politics, and artist’s responsibilities to the public, a debate that has sucked NPR into its vortex, including its own beloved “This American Life.” And he’s a “performance artist.” I know that the play’s immediate inspirations are now no longer the causes celebres, but performance art, like Blessing’s play, continues to morph along with the national culture.

Nick Sandys
Artistic Director
Remy Bumppo Theatre Co.

Dan Zeff April 5, 2012 at 1:38 pm


I have no doubt that there is a funding crisis in the arts as there is in other areas of national life. I just didn’t think that “Chesapeake” addressed that concern in a coherent and relevant way. The second act in particular lost me in its meandering fantasy. The play had its entertaining elements but if Blessing was trying to make a powerful case for the arts, he stumbled, though I suspect that in addressing a typical liberal leaning theater audience he was preaching to the choir in any case. The caricature of Pooley was a straw man as Kerr’s opponent. I am sure that a strong call-to-action play could be made from the arts funding crisis. Moises Kaufman or Larry Kramer or Eve Ensler could be the playwright to bring it off. The subject might lend itself to a documentary style approach. I don’t think that “Chesapeake” succeeds as an advocate for the cause but Anderson’s performance made it all worthwhile.


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