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Review: “Chesapeake”

"Chesapeake" at the Henegar Center for the Arts

“Chesapeake” at the Henegar Center for the Arts

By PAM HARBAUGH

Like the estuary after which it is named, the one-man play “Chesapeake” brings together opposing forces to create something new and wonderful. Here, those opposites are art and politics and what they create when mixed is potent.

Stirring these brackish waters is prolific playwright Lee Blessing. As he has done in other plays, most memorably in his 1985 “Eleemonsynary,” Mr. Blessing uses exquisite prose laced liberally with intellectual diction. In his 1999 “Chesapeake,” he uses language to weave a mesmerizing tale of magic, mystery and love while he winningly asserts the importance of artists to take us to places we never dreamed existed.

And what an imaginative story this one-man play tells. Surprises, delight and soul lifting language draw you into it so deeply it brings tears. And in the Henegar’s intimate black box theater, it is directed so well by Hank Rion and performed so tenderly by an outstanding Terrence Girard, it will make you melt for its sheer artistry.

In “Chesapeake,” a performance artist named “Kerr” walks onto a stage with only a chair and a stool on which resides one glass of water. Kerr recounts the time when Marinetti’s manifesto on futurism, which purports the savage function of art, inspired a brilliant concept — read the “Song of Solomon” while audience members walk to the stage to remove one piece of Kerr’s clothing. The end result was Kerr’s nudity and the audience’s visceral reaction.

Enter Sen. Therm Pooley, a conservative Southern politician hell bent on denying Kerr’s grant from National Endowment for the Arts. In fact, Pooley wants to do away with the NEA completely.

Add to the mix the senator’s favorite companion, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever; and the senator’s sexy assistant, Stacie.

And that is where the plot of this fabulous fable will no longer be revealed here. It is simply too rich and too full of emotion and enchantment to spoil it for you. However, once it’s over, you will notice a number of first act clues that the playwright tosses for you to sniff out.

But do let it be said that Mr. Girard is at his most compelling in the role of Kerr. In telling the story, he revels in nuance as he switches from one persona to the next, arriving ultimately at the heart of each character. He handles Mr. Blessing’s poetic speeches with delicacy and understanding, wringing out the richness of each line. But it is in the second act where Mr. Girard electrifies the stage, causing the audience to hang onto every word.

Mr. Rion smartly keeps the staging simple. In the second act, a bold choice rather amplifies the recurring theme of Marinetti’s notion that art needs to startle. But oh, my, something must be done about that lighting. Not enough instruments and what felt like a finicky lighting board caused too many missed cues and dark spots on opening night.

Early in the play, Kerr talks about a performance artist who simply banged on a pan 1,000 times with a wooden spoon. He calls it a “bubble of aesthetic sadism” but that, ultimately, “failed art is better than no art at all.”

That may be true, but with the Henegar’s production of “Chesapeake,” we get a chance to see successful art. In fact, with this artful production, the Henegar Center for the Arts reveals its quickening potential as a powerhouse cultural institution.

This is theater at its most pure, harkening to its origins. A simple set. A wickedly engaging story wonderfully told. Not to be missed.

SIDE O’ GRITS: “Chesapeake” performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 12 at the Henegar Center for the Arts, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. $15. Call 321-723-8698 or visit www.henegar.org.