There have been a few intriguing public conversations around the power (or lack thereof) of art in this country recently. Muddying the already-turgid waters of the recent election cycle, Mitt Romney threatened funding for PBS by putting its fluffy yellow mascot, Big Bird in his cross-hairs. And in the deliciously blistering introductory essay to her glorious new art book, Glittering Images, Camille Paglia takes aim at the elitists among us who hoist what she considers to be second and third-rate artists aloft simply for being provocative. Just adorning the Virgin Mary with elephant dung does not make one a particularly good artist, she argues. And now we consider art again with New Repertory Theatre’s funny and engaging play Chesapeake.
Written by playwright Lee Blessing in 1999 as a reflection on the attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts during the Reagan administration, Chesapeake centers on performance artist Kerr played by Georgia Lyman.
Kerr is provocative. She views art as an “act of will” and a force for “domination.” But Kerr is also supported in part by government grant money. When she finds herself in the middle of a national controversy brought on by conservative southern senator, Therm Pooley, she elects to take her art to an even more incendiary level.
Lyman portrays Kerr with a force that should kick her career into high gear. The sole actor in the show, Lyman takes full, entertaining command as she transitions among a range of characters including Kerr, the hilarious and searing Senator Pooley and his dog. To explain the canine connection would be to give too much away. Lyman should be familiar to audiences for an already deeply established career on local stages (and as the daughter of actor and Frontline narrator Will Lyman), but she’ll long be remembered for this very skilled portrayal. And Chesapeake as a whole should nudge us into thinking about the very layered nuances of what is art.
Chesapeake plays through December 16th at New Repertory Theatre.