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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014

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Matt Daniels stars in In Tandem's production of "Chesapeake."
Matt Daniels stars in In Tandem's production of "Chesapeake." (Photo: Ross Zentner Photography)

As man, woman or dog, Daniels impresses in "Chesapeake"

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’t give a damn. The argument gets a tantalizing and probing treatment at In Tandem’s 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’s hard to find words to describe Daniels, who had to deal with 49 pages of dialogue for this play. But it’s 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.

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