My Life as an Art-Guard Dog

American Stage's Chesapeake, a madcap wish fullfillment for art — and theater — lovers

Wouldn't it be nice if politicians genuinely believed in the importance of the arts? Wouldn't it be gratifying if, at the start of his State of the Union address, some President would say, "Of course the first thing on all of your minds is the condition of the arts. And I'm happy to report that in most sectors we're making progress. Our painters continue to discover the spiritual implications of form and color, while our composers and musicians are making historic strides in their experiments with dissonance. Our novelists are perhaps not capitalizing fully on the modernist advances of the last century, but I'm confident that, with increased federal subsidies, they'll prove worthy of the legacy of Joyce and Mann, Proust and Woolf. And speaking of increased spending: I'm recommending that we triple our national outlay for poets, those precious technicians of our ever-evolving language. And finally, I want to say a word to you independent filmmakers: America loves you. America needs you. And this administration will not rest until your product, however idiosyncratic, is distributed to every multiplex in our nation. Artists elected me to this position, art sustains me in this position, and when future generations speak of my tenure, I only want to hear six short words: 'He was good for the arts.' Now allow me to recite a little prose poem I've been fiddling with."

Pleasant to imagine? If you think so, you'll probably want to see Chesapeake, Lee Blessing's very entertaining wish-fulfillment dream currently showing at American Stage. Blessing's tale of a right-wing senator's education in arts funding is just as fantastical and unlikely as the speech described above, and entirely delightful from beginning to implausible end. And there's further good news: One of the Bay area's best actors, Ned Averill-Snell, is in tip-top shape throughout this monologue, and turns in as good a performance as he's ever given. Add fine direction and an amusing set, and you have all the reason you need to see this unusual — no, bizarre — play. Sure, the story it tells is far from credible. But since when do dreams have to be realistic to be enjoyed?

Chesapeake is about a performance artist named Kerr, and his relationships with an arts-bashing Southern politician named Therm Pooley (think Jesse Helms mixed with Strom Thurmond) and the senator's dog, a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Lucky. Kerr isn't particularly political when the action starts; he's just content to express himself on stage by reading the "Song of Solomon" while audience members strip him naked. But everything changes when he receives a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Congressman Pooley, in a tight race for senator, and looking for publicity that might help him get elected, tries to get Kerr's grant revoked. In revenge, Kerr decides upon a new performance: He'll kidnap Pooley's dog, an overpublicized tool of the congressman's self-promotion, and teach the retriever to prefer artists to politicians. But the dog-napping goes awry, and both Kerr and the dog fall from a height to their deaths.

Now the story gets really strange: Kerr wakes up, not in heaven or hell, but back on earth — and he's got lots of fur, four legs, and a terrific sense of smell. No, he's not Lucky — instead, he's the Chesapeake Bay Retriever that now-Senator Pooley is adopting to replace the deceased Lucky. This dog — also called Lucky — still has most of Kerr's human consciousness, but that consciousness is fading and is being replaced by pure dog. While he's still mostly Kerr, Lucky contacts the startled Pooley — at first, just by typing "hi" on a computer keyboard — and allows the awe-struck senator to believe that he, Lucky, is a messenger from God. And what is God's message to Senator Pooley? Lucky types it on the computer: "NEA." As for what follows, well, it's very funny and not very plausible. And to learn more, you'll have to see the play yourself.

Thanks to Averill-Snell's acting, that should be a treat. Averill-Snell has been performing on Bay area stages for several years now — prior to moving to Tampa, he worked with the Indiana Repertory Theatre — but during those years he's occasionally shown a frustrating tendency to reduce his characters to a very few emotional colors. He seemed to be reaching for a new complexity last season when he played James Tyrone in A Moon for The Misbegotten (also at American Stage); but only a few months ago in American Buffalo he was back to his old trick of oversimplifying the complex. Well, stop the presses and rewrite the headline: In Chesapeake Averill-Snell turns in a near-perfect performance, one as variegated and unpredictable as it is persuasive and ingratiating.

As directed by Jeff Norton, Averill-Snell plays Kerr as an art-obsessed idealist with a good sense of humor, a strong conviction of personal dignity, and, after the transformation, a growing enjoyment of life as a dog. This is a character you believe in, whether he's standing up for artistic integrity or hunkering down for a bitch in heat. On Norton and Travis Horstmann's silly, busy set — containing four TV monitors, the headless statue of a woman, a large chair in the shape of a hand, a bicycle, a blackboard and an abstract painting — Averill-Snell grabs our attention early and never lets go. Occasionally, he even plays Senator Pooley — and this is just the type of politician we know too much about here in Florida. But Averill-Snell humanizes Pooley too, and reminds us on several occasions of the real man behind the snarling mask. As for Pooley's climactic speech — well, no actor could convince us that the senator has suddenly acquired so much true vision. But Averill-Snell handles the oration beautifully nonetheless, and he later grants us a glimpse of the lion lying down with the lamb — or with the pooch. And these moments are magical.

Is Chesapeake just a pipe dream? Of course it is, in lots of ways. But wish-fulfillment dreams have a reputable place in our mental economy, and in any case, they're a nice change of pace from anxiety dreams (most modern drama). And why shouldn't art-lovers have a break from all the news about cuts in arts funding?

If Kerr can be changed into a cur, well, anything can happen.

And it's a real pleasure watching it happen in Chesapeake.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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