In the conclusion to its 2011/2012 season, entitled The American Revolution, the Remy Bumppo Theatre Company seeks to finish a slate of offerings that according to press materials, explore "transformational experiences in U.S. history."
"Chesapeake," currently running at the Greenhouse Theater through April 29, is a one-person comedy that tackles weighty themes such as the question of what constitutes art, America’s two-party system and the class dynamics that emerge from it, and the sense of incapacitating panic experienced by the knowingly powerless.
In an era when social discourse, media coverage, and daily life is dominated by the differences between the 99 percent majority and the one percent in its ideology producing ivory tower, the exploration of these complex tensions feels as urgent and necessary as ever.
But should the preceding paragraph suggest that "Chesapeake" is a weighty, joyless way to spend two hours (including a brief intermission), nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, playwright Lee Blessing’s work is infused with a sort of exhilaration in romping through the trappings of human fallibility. Under the steady direction of Remy Bumppo Artistic Associate Shawn Douglass and the flawless work of one-man band Greg Matthew Anderson, the production is a smile-infecting delight.
There are many visible and silent partners that go into the mounting of a successful show, but in truth, the whole thing would fall apart without the yeoman’s work of Anderson. Gifted with corporeal adorableness, impeccable comic timing, commitment to the spoken word, and the kind of facial expression that would have made Lucille Ball envious, this is Anderson’s show.
Inhabiting the role of Kerr, "a performance artist targeted by a conservative senator with a lovable Chesapeake Bay retriever for a companion," Anderson will make you laugh uproariously, cry, fret and fear -- all with seamless transition. The actor does not simply play a performance artist. He is one.
His character is deeply flawed perhaps to the point of psychotic break, and yet how can you not cheer for him? It would be a crying shame if Anderson were left off the next list of Jeff nominees. As a critic, it was impossible to forget the behemoth amount of dialogue committed to memory coupled with the ability to imbue each line with organic truth. Just brilliant.
The plot, such as it is, seems a trifle. A young man struggling to "make it" in New York City’s unforgiving artistic ecosphere is stymied at every turn by a disingenuous conservative politician who has built a career from persecuting the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) and all its grant recipients.
As Kerr is one of these designees and happens to reside in the cynical congressman’s district, he is turned into a singular campaign issue, tarred and feathered as an anomalous freak, frittering away taxpayer dollars.
In response to the both the public smear as well as the personal attacks, Kerr conceives of the ultimate revenge that will double as performance art. By kidnapping the campaign ad-friendly Chesapeake Bay retriever who trails the lawmaker behind every sound bite opportunity, Kerr believes he will successfully rob the congressman of the true source of his appeal. And by creating a media firestorm before returning the dog unharmed, the publicity might go a long way toward demonstrating his commitment to Art, with a purposeful capital "A."
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. Without giving too much away, allow me to say that they go hilariously awry. My first instinct was that a production without sets, without a supporting cast, without much in the way of soundtrack or visual effect would be bound to wear thin quickly. I could not have been more wrong.
The production should be considered PG-13 due to its intermittently salty language, sexual frankness, and complex motifs. But it’s a real pleasure in every sense. This was my first theater experience with Remy Bumppo. It will not be the last.
"Chesapeake" runs through April 29 at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets call 773-404-7336 or visit the Remy Bumppo website.