Theatre Nova goes to the dogs with ‘Chesapeake’

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Sebastian Gerstner stars in the one-person comedy “Chesapeake” at Theatre Nova.

One year ago, actor Sebastian Gerstner earned rave reviews, laughs, and a Wilde Award nomination for his role in Theatre Nova’s inaugural, one-man production “Buyer and Cellar,” so perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that Gerstner will be bringing multiple characters to life again on TN’s stage by way Lee Blessing’s “Chesapeake.”

But experience doesn’t necessarily make the task of carrying an entire show on his shoulders easier.

“(Gerstner) told me that every day now, he’s writing in his journal, ‘Never agree to do a one-man show again,’” said director Dan Walker (who also directed “Buyer”) with a laugh. “The memorization is so intense. But he’s so good at it.”

“Chesepeake” – inspired by Senator Jesse Helms’ 1989 campaign against the National Endowment for the Arts – premiered in New York in 1999, in a production starring Mark Linn-Baker (of “Perfect Strangers” fame). Since then, Blessing has revamped the script, which focuses on Kerr, a bisexual performance artist from the South who’s fled to New York. A conservative politician from Kerr’s home state uses both his dog, Lucky, and Kerr’s edgy work to attack the NEA in a campaign commercial – and the ad helps him win the Senate seat. For revenge, Kerr plans an elaborate heist to dognap Lucky, but this leads him down a path he could never have expected to travel.

“I haven’t done a comparison (between Blessing’s original script and the updated one),” said Walker, “but what I’m left with, and what I’m drawn to, is the human story. Underneath all politics, in the end, is just people. … (Blessing’s) spending nearly half the play talking about art, and its meaning in our lives, and the NEA battles are a great way to talk about that.”

But the play also has a lot to say about, well, dogs.

“There are great passages about how a dog senses and experiences the world,” said Walker. “It’s just really interesting and beautiful and unique. I’ve never read anything like it.”

But those who might worry that “Chesapeake” might be too arch in its intentions, with sharply defined heroes and villains, will be relieved to know that Blessing labors to level the playing field.

“You get to know this politician that you assume you’re going to hate,” said Walker. “That’s where it strikes me as dumb if you try to present this play as a serious political tract, because it just doesn’t hold up as a very good one. … The easiest way to do terrible art is to start with a political agenda.”

In previous productions of “Chesapeake,” Kerr’s been played by both women and men; but according to Walker, it’s Gerstner’s personality, instead of anything related to his gender, that adds crucial dimension to the play’s handful of colorful characters.

“He’s so charming,” said Walker. “Part of the play is like an extreme performance artist doing stand-up, and that could come off as really acerbic, but Sebastian isn’t. He’s lovable. There’s just this sweetness about him. … At a certain point, lots of people can act, but it’s tough to be lovably charming if you aren’t. He’s just this sweet guy, and that comes through, and it’s an important part of making us care about (Kerr).”

Plus, for all it has to say about dogs and humans and art, “Chesapeake” is first and foremost a comedy, so you can expect it to get silly and over-the-top. In addition to Kerr, Gerstner plays the Senator’s wife, the Senator’s assistant, a tobacco-chewing dog breeder and more.

“This one really physical sequence, the first time Sebastian really hit it (in rehearsal), was hysterical,” said Walker. “I was actually falling out of my chair from laughing so hard.”

Walker thinks TN’s small size makes it a perfect venue for one-person plays, and his own experience directing the company’s production of “Buyer and Cellar” – as well as the time-jumping two-hander “Bright Half Life” – has provided him with a key insight regarding pacing and character shifts.

“I found, after doing it before, that it works best when the changes are instantaneous,” said Walker. “The difference between two beats or a half beat – that’s the game. And Sebastian can do that. He can just look up, or do something with his hand, or switch accents, and it flows at the speed of dialogue.”

Theatre Nova’s production of “Chesapeake” runs February 4-16 at the Yellow Barn, at 416 W. Huron St. in Ann Arbor. For showtimes and ticket information, visit http://www.theatrenova.org/.

PREVIEW BY JENN MCKEE

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