One-person plays are rare and not many have received wide circulation or much acclaim. This may be due to one thing: no matter how good a play is, it will succeed or fail depending on the actors in it, and obviously, with a one-person show, all the responsibility falls on a single actor.
This can be a tremendous amount of pressure; learning an unusually large number of lines, being onstage non-stop for sometimes two hours or more and perhaps most importantly, having no other actor to interact with and be supported by.
In its brief existence, Theatre Nova has already tackled one of these one-man beasts (last season’s “Buyer and Cellar”) to tremendous effect and the same actor who was responsible for that show’s success is back again. “Chesapeake” starring Sebastian Gerstner, is now running at The Yellow Barn in Ann Arbor.
The story focuses on Kerr, a performance artist whose funding from the National Endowment of the Arts is cut by Therm Pooley, a senator from his hometown. Kerr attempts to get revenge on the politician and simultaneously create a performance art piece by kidnapping Pooley’s beloved dog.
He believes this will make a statement to the nation about Pooley’s priorities: does he care too much about his rigid beliefs (and his dog) to do right by the people, especially when it comes to the arts? Kerr’s plan goes awry in what seems like the worst way possible, but as he is forced to spend time with Pooley, he has a chance to change the senator’s mind, and maybe even the nation’s, about funding for the arts and what art can do for people.
Lee Blessing, the playwright, follows in the absurdist tradition of playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Luigi Pirandello. Absurdum in theatre is focused on breakdowns in communication between members of society and reacts to a world that may or may not have meaning or substance, but is struggling to find it.
The irony of a play such as “Chesapeake,” about a performance artist, is that absurdum and performance art are often lumped together as being strange and hard-to-understand art forms that push boundaries and make people wonder what it is they have just seen. This play is often funny, by turns profound and morbid, and ultimately makes us reflect on the importance of art in our lives and the lengths to which we must go to help art survive.
Just as in last year’s solo adventure, “Buyer and Cellar,” Gerstner makes the most of being the only one onstage. He plays half a dozen characters, including a dog, and he switches from one to the next in the blink of an eye.
During the play’s introspective moments, Gerstner shows a quiet depth and sincerity, and during the faster-paced or stranger moments he moves with agility and a fire in his eyes which makes us root for Kerr despite the crazy things he is doing.
Theatre Nova has a small space to work with at the Yellow Barn, but production designer Daniel C. Walker, who also directed the play, makes the most of it with a spare, but beautiful and effective set.
“Chesapeake” runs through Feb. 28 at The Yellow Barn in Ann Arbor located at 416 W. Huron St.