Let’s face it. If most of the politicians in the current political race started acting more like dogs, it would be a vast improvement. Which is why this current production from Theatre Nova is so timely. It offers a sure remedy for those who, like this writer, are already weary of the political rambling and shrill rhetoric that seem to be holding all media channels hostage these days. And the play seems to take a cue from Mark Twain, who once remarked that, “Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
If you like dogs, or just need a good laugh, Theatre Nova is about to make you very happy. All you have to do is see its current production, “Chesapeake,” before it closes on February 28. This comedy by award-winning playwright Lee Blessing reunites the team behind last year’s hilarious “Buyer & Cellar” – actor Sebastian Gerstner and director Daniel C. Walker.
“Chesapeake” is a one-man play in which Sebastian Gerstner plays a performance artist named Kerr. His story, which he relates with great energy and inventiveness, starts simply enough. Kerr is an expatriate from an ultra-conservative southern town where his nemesis was a local politician named Therm Pooley. Pooley’s popularity is linked to a clever Chesapeake Retriever named Lucky –a dog that the media and electorate just adore. Kerr hates this dog, this man, and the people who elected him, and is happy to leave the south for artist-friendly cities to the north. There, Kerr finds modest success. But his world is shaken to the core when Therm Pooley denounces Kerr and his NEA-funded grant as a ploy to get media attention and win a Senate seat. Much to Kerr’s chagrin, the ploy works and Pooley, his wife, lovely assistant Kelly, and media-magnet dog move to Washington, D.C.
Kerr plot’s his revenge – an elaborate artistic statement that involves kidnapping the dog Lucky and training him to betray Pooley in front of the press. Of course, we know this plan can’t possibly work – this is a comedy, after all – but we are not prepared for how badly, how ironically, it goes awry.
We hate spoilers. So here’s what you need to know: what happens is both tragic and funny and wonderfully impossible. Gerstner is brilliant in how he portrays all of the characters – Pooley, the ingenue Kelly, the bitchy wife, and even the ferocious and loyal dog, Lucky. In fact, he is most convincing and hilarious when channeling the dog’s elation at simple pleasures – the bombardment of earthy odors, the pleasures of a good ear scratch, and the irresistible instinct to retrieve. There are elements of death and rebirth, damnation and salvation, and ultimately a sort of redemption born of compassion. For as many laughs as this play provokes, there is a surprising sense of satisfaction at the end—and the sense that one has gleaned some unexpected bits of wisdom without having had to work for them.
“Chesapeake,” under the direction of Daniel C. Walker, makes no pretense that the performing arts can solve the world’s problems or put politicians on the path of truth and benevolence. If anything, its self-depreciating tone mocks artists who suffer under an illusion of self-importance. But as Artistic Director Carla Milarch observes in her program notes, maybe the simple act of witnessing this charming play is enough to make a difference.
“If there is an antidote to what ails us as a society,” she writes, “perhaps it is not more grandstanding and loud angry diatribes, but this, here, now. This quiet, lovely, enjoyable connection with each other, despite our differences, laughing together, feeling together.” If nothing else, the belly laughs will do you good. And the respite from the hurly-burly of political rhetoric will certainly feel welcome.
This Theatre Nova production of “Chesapeake” runs through February 28 in the Yellow Barn located at 416 W. Huron in Ann Arbor. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. The location offers free parking for patrons as well as quick access to the city’s restaurants, bars, bakeries and coffee shops. New patrons can find it across Huron Street from Ann Arbor’s YMCA, through a parking lot entrance on the north side of the street, near the viaduct.
Theatre Nova has marked all tickets for all performances as pay-what-you-can, with a suggested donation of $20; they can be purchased here. Members making a donation of $75 or more also receive admission to all seven season productions, every show in the New Play Readings series, and children’s shows. Patrons can attain memberships by going to the Theatre Nova website.