Encore Michigan

All dogs go to heaven in Theatre Nova’s “Chesapeake”

Review February 07, 2016 David Kiley

ANN ARBOR,Mich.–One-actor shows are murder for the actor, and they can be a bit daunting for the audience too, especially if they are not biographical with a familiar story to latch on to. But Sebastian Gerstner, doing his second one-man show, Chesapeake, in as many seasons for Theatre Nova here, manages once again to put us in the palm of his hand for a good story.

Gerstner, who last season delivered a Wilde Award-nominated performance in Buyer and Cellar, this time plays Kerr, a performance artist, who is having a public feud with a right-wing conservative senator named Therm Pooley who opposes Kerr’s act, and any other art, being funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The play, by Lee Blessing, sprang from the height of the culture wars in 1999 when the now-late Senators Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms were leading the fight against government-funded art, especially when it seemed to involve themes not sanctioned by their own churches.

In the story, Senator Pooley’s dog becomes a key character, and Kerr hatches an unlikely and truly silly plan to dog-nap the Senator’s Chesapeake retriever, named Lucky. In the attempt, things go badly for both Kerr and the pooch. That turns out to be a good thing. The first half of the play is a bit didactic and predictable with Blessing giving us an entirely predictable blue-state/red-state take and screed on public funding of the arts. Indeed, after 40 minutes, one starts to wonder where the heck this show is going.

But then, the whole story suddenly and surprisingly changes with a head-snap, and the second half is a truly charming and amusing tale, or shall I say, tail, of how two people on opposite ends of the political and social spectrum come to understand one another and get inside one another’s head. And the first half was entirely necessary for setting it all up. Perhaps the most telling line of the play is a reference to the notions that in ten million years of evolution, there has been nothing more perfect to come of it than man’s relationship with dogs. And that evolution, so frequently disputed by the evangelical crowd, is “God” spelled backwards.

Daniel C. Walker is the director, production designer and technical director. The set consists of a dock, and the backside of a fishing shack, cat-tails, and a hilarious and smile-inducing attempt at a tree, which has a tree branch duct-taped to the support column that is unfortunately in the middle of the acting space in the Yellow Barn, which is the home of Theatre Nova.

I get more and more enamored with the Theatre Nova space and the aims of he company each time I go. The space is intimate, holding about 50-60 people at a time. And the production selections by artistic director Carla Milarch are refreshing and new, with an emphasis on works that are Michigan premieres. The smallness of the space makes one, two and three actor plays a smart and necessary choice.

Chesapeake, in a Presidential election year, keeps from spiraling into something as predictable as a CNN or Fox News debate, by veering off to a better place of eye-opening and heartwarming transcendence, with a dash of nostalgia for political comity, that can give us all a bit of hope that one day the two dominant political parties might foster a new dynamic in which people with differing positions might actually start talking about solutions rather than their differences. Of course, it will probably be raining frogs for that to happen. Blessing is no fool when his play suggests that the one thing, when all else fails, that can bring people of opposites together on the same idea is a common love of a dog.

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