HERE'S A VOCAB WORD: "neoteny," defined by Wiki as "the retention, by adults in a species, of traits previously seen only in juveniles." Playwright Lee Blessing refers to this idea several times in Chesapeake, currently running at Profile Theatre. Neoteny explains the appearance of dogs as we know them, bred for big ears and soft fur. Does it also account for the existence of artists, with their arguably adolescent focus on beauty and truth? If so, does that make neoteny a good thing or a bad thing?
A clear answer to those questions never comes—if it did, it might resolve some lingering uncertainty as to whether Blessing's one-man show is at heart a self-serving infomercial for the preservation of national arts funding, a hero's quest into uncharted imaginative and spiritual realms, or a parable about how a man's best qualities are represented in his relationship to his dog.
In different hands, such a thematically inconclusive script could be insufferable. But with the always excellent Todd Van Voris in the lead role, and under the direction of Third Rail's Scott Yarbrough, Profile Theatre's intelligent production of Chesapeake demands correspondingly thoughtful consideration.
Kerr (Van Voris) is a possibly psychotic performance artist who decides to use his National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant to fund a plot to kidnap a conservative senator's dog, Rat. The plan goes so horrifically awry that both the artist and the dog end up dead as a result. But Kerr wakes to find his consciousness has been transferred into the body of a Chesapeake Bay retriever, a dog purchased to replace Rat as the senator's most effective political prop.
Kerr uses his status as man's best friend to influence the senator's position on funding the NEA. But the play's point can't be boiled down to a simple argument in favor of arts funding—after all, Kerr used his own NEA grant to fund his dognapping plot. That Kerr's plan ultimately succeeds—that he convinces the senator to reverse his policy on NEA funding—raises the big question: Was his stunt "art," after all?
Chesapeake is full of big ideas, and a few little ones, too. But ultimately the show belongs to Van Voris, one of Portland's best—whether he's impersonating the Southern senator or air-humping the neighbor's bitch, he convinces the audience that Kerr's is a story worth listening to.