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Timing is everything. A couple of years ago, Lee Blessing wrote the acidly comic solo show Chesapeake in response to legislative brickbats Newt Gingrich and his cronies were hurling at the National Endowment for the Arts. Enthusiastically received in New York when those battles were still current, the surreal tale of a bisexual performance artist’s dognapping of a conservative congressman’s retriever ought to have had the shelf life of an ice cream sandwich left in the midsummer sun.
Instead, with gay-baiting, arts-hostile Republicans lining up for cabinet posts in a Bush administration that grows, as I write this, more inevitable by the hour, Blessing’s spiky, bright, and occasionally chill-inducing witticisms could scarcely feel more current.
Which is not to suggest that the evening is mere agitprop. As has been his habit in such works as A Walk in the Woods (about disarmament) and Patient A (about AIDS), the author is admirably evenhanded. There’s no question where he stands on the issue of government interference in matters artistic, but in Chesapeake, Blessing lampoons the pretensions of artists just as avidly as he does those of their political detractors. His central character, Kerr (Holly Twyford, in a role originally conceived as male), begins by telling us of her childhood experiences with a father who believed that art was “a test and an act of will,” and who proved that theory one afternoon by making her sit through a painfully monotonous performance piece titled One Thousand Even Beats on the Frying Pan.
Undeterredin fact, inspiredKerr dreams up an act that is calculated to provoke in more direct ways. It takes its text from the Bible’s Song of Solomon (“Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins”) and its method from Oh, Calcutta! (audience members remove an article of her clothing for each line until she’s reciting in the nude), and when offense is predictably taken by right-wing, anti-gay, anti-NEA Congressman Therm Pooley, she’s as privately delighted as she is publicly outraged.
But when Pooley wins re-election by making denunciations of Kerr a centerpiece of his campaign, her outrage takes over, and she hatches the dogjacking-as-art gambit, the machinations of which consume much of Chesapeake’s first act. Act 2 turns loopier in ways I shouldn’t go into too much detail about. Suffice it to say that Twyford is as amusing as Pooley’s dog as she is as a performance artist, and that by evening’s end, pretty much everyone is seeing the light, though it’s a different form of illumination than seemed intended at the outset.
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Blessing is a smart, graceful writer, capable of prompting smiles even while brushing in explanatory expositiondistilling in a phrase, for instance, the conundrum presented by a biblical passage that praises body parts (“It’s not the lust that embarrasses usit’s the luxury”). And in Twyford, he has an onstage interpreter who is every inch his equal. The actress is spunky as always, keeping a half-dozen disparate characters present on stage simultaneously (she’s a splendid retriever) through tricks of voice, posture, and attitude that have never served her better. She’s aided by director (and Washington City Paper opera critic) Joe Banno’s spare stagingand by an orchestration of barks and woofs by Brian Keating that is very nearly a show in itself.
Canadian playwright George F. Walker has had a phenomenal run at local theaters since his satirical play noir Filthy Rich premiered locally in 1987. Round House Theatre mounted that surprise smash and followed it with a half-dozen of the prolific author’s equally offbeat domestic tragicomedies. Nearly all have played to packed houses, as did Woolly Mammoth’s premiere of Walker’s ferociously entertaining Heaven, a rant about hate and the hereafter, earlier this year.
The only Walker evening that didn’t click locally was an early work called Zastrozzi, conceived by the author as a sort of 19th-century, intellectual Raiders of the Lost Ark, but produced by Round House in 1988 in a production that made it feel more like Misogynist Zorro Meets Candide. In a stripped-to-essentials production, Project Y, an ambitious young company dedicated to attracting 20-something audiences, has now undertaken to correct that misstep with results that are, alas, mixed.
“It is not a passion,” says a dark, eerily ominous figure, by way of explaining what motivates the title character. “It is not an obsession…or the end of the world. It is easily worse. It is revenge.”
Revenge so consuming, unfortunately, that Zastrozzi (Johnathan Church), the self-styled “master criminal of all Europe,” is barely making most-wanted lists anymore. Instead, he’s chasing after a grinning idiot of an Italian painter named Verezzi (Alex Cranmer), who has been blessed with all the benign qualities Zastrozzi lacks, along with delusions of adequacy (“I’m just a good and lovely man…and tidy, too”). Also on hand are Zastrozzi’s murderous minions (clad in studded leather by costumiere Rhonda Key), and the painter’s sanctimonious hangers-on.
Though Walker later became wonderfully adept at sprinkling ambivalence and indirection into his plots, this early opus pits good against evil in surprisingly predictable ways. And, although the play’s young author was already an un-self-conscious wordsmith (“It’s 1893 and language, like everything else, has become pleasantly vague”), the philosophizing in Zastrozzi is mostly strained and the conversation less than scintillating. That may be why Michole Biancosino peppers her staging with violent outburstsincluding a nifty strangling and some barely contained swordfightsall of which are decidedly alarming in the close quarters at the DCAC.
What Biancosino and the company can’t do through sheer performance energy, however, is give the evening’s overarticulated arguments the force they’d have if the playwright had been more circumspect. Walker grew fonder of tweaking narrative and character as he matured, but Zastrozzi is a classic case of a still-green author thinking his audience will get the point if he just does a lot of pointing. CP