The historical debate about the value and importance of art has simmered and raged for centuries.
There have always been two sides: those who believe in art and those who couldn‚Äôt give a damn. The argument gets a tantalizing and probing treatment at In Tandem‚Äôs 10th Street theater, through March 16.
The play is "Chesapeake" by Lee Blessing, drawing its title from a Chesapeake retriever that plays an integral role in the story.¬†But the production truly belongs to Matt Daniels, the actor who brings alive a string of disparate characters, all of whom have a role in this discussion of the value of art.
In a turn that has the kind of impact of an earthquake, he plays a performance artist, a southern congressman who drips righteousness, his aide who drips sex appeal, his wife who drips bitter control and, oh yes, a dog named Lucky who drips from his tongue.
Daniels takes command of the inventive set designed by Joe Brehl from the first moment he arrives. He grasps it with his two graceful and powerful hands, and never lets go until two hours have past and he has wrung every bit of intellectual curiosity and emotional connection out of us.
It‚Äôs hard to find words to describe Daniels, who had to deal with 49 pages of dialogue for this play. But it‚Äôs not his memory on display here.¬†What we see is a glorious example of a man in total control and at exquisite peace with his craft. Daniels has a story to tell, and he tells it with humor, passion and a grace that drives deep into the soul of anyone watching.
At first, the story seems to be a discussion about whether there should be government funding of the arts. The senator, Therm Pooley, wants to strip funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Kerr (his only name) is the performance artist who reads the Song of Solomon while each member of his audience strips one item of clothing until he stands unabashedly naked on a stage.
To the political gain of Pooley, Kerr gets a grant from the NEA and Pooley rides that "poor-naug-ra-fey" to election to the Senate.
The play is not just a debate about whether the government should provide funding for art.¬†Pooley represents an attack on all art, denigrating its worth and its practitioners. But Kerr does not go quietly into the night. He fights back with a vengeance.
"Even failed art," he wails, "is better than no art at all."
Kerr embodies the conceit that art can change minds and change worlds. It is not about entertaining an audience but about attacking it and turning its gaze into corners where there is no light.
It is obvious that Blessing wrote from a point of view that endorses the world of artists and is disgusted by those who have no appreciation for that world.
Under the sensitive and obviously demanding direction of Chris Flieller, "Chesapeake" is fully alive for over two hours. The second half is full of unexpected plot twists and turns that lead to an air of tension and expectation that fills the theater.
Years ago, I was in a memorable production of "Merchant of Venice" with Daniels. At a rehearsal break, I told him that I had never seen an actor move with such well-defined purpose. Every time he moved, there was a reason.
In "Chesapeake," he proves that he still has that gift, as a man, woman or even a dog.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published Aug. 25, 2016
The ability to talk about race is behind the plan for OnMilwaukee's ongoing series of Milwaukee Talks: honest and frank discussions, unedited and focused on the issues of equality and justice. It's also the time for big dreams for the city.
Published Aug. 23, 2016
The Milwaukee theater season is underway and I've been looking through the schedule. I've found 24 productions I'm really anticipating. There are going to be others, and surprises, but my 24 are the productions I can't wait to see and experience.
Published Aug. 18, 2016
As Milwaukee struggles with the issue of how to deal with racial violence, it's critical to find answers to two key questions. The first question is how did Milwaukee become so racist. The second is how do we fix a culture that loves violence.
Published Aug. 16, 2016
Simon Mustaffa is 18 and lives in the Central City. He's off to UWM with a full scholarship and he has strong views about the violence in Sherman Park. For him, it's not a surprise at all; this explosion was a long time coming.
Published Aug. 16, 2016
All In Productions has a history that can be measured in months, but it has already staged some wonderful plays. It has produced five so far, and the next one is directed by artistic director Robby McGhee, who knows where this company wants to go.
Published Aug. 13, 2016
Under the feathery touch of director Marcella Kearns, Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" takes isolation, desolation and disappointment and stands them on their ear, filling the Cabot Theatre with chuckles, laughters and outright roars of fun
Published Aug. 12, 2016
A sweltering hot August night was the perfect atmosphere for the opening night of "No Exit," Jean Paul Sartre's trip through his particular and peculiar vision of hell. The Dale Gutzman-directed production is a searing journey through the existential mind.
Published Aug. 11, 2016
Election day has come and gone and some of the results in the primary contests are satisfying, but also quite a bit troubling. Leading the satisfaction category is the reelection of District Attorney John Chisholm over Verona Swanigan, 65% to 35%.
Published Aug. 9, 2016
If you are young(ish), headed out on a warm Saturday night and want to go drinking Downtown, you have your choice of four distinctly different areas and crowds to join. As an Uber driver, I spend lots of time in all four places.
Published Aug. 4, 2016
First take a tempest. Then take a teapot.Then put the tempest in the teapot. Here's what you get, according to the dictionary. "A small or unimportant event that is over-reacted to, as if it were of considerably more consequence." We've got them.