So many characters but only one actor make ‘Chesapeake’ a challenge

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Matt Daniels in

Lee Blessing’s play Chesapeake presents a stable of colorful characters. There’s the senator staking his re-election bid on a promise to eliminate government funding of the arts. There’s the bisexual performance artist who makes it his mission to embarrass the senator and force him out of the race. There’s the senator’s wife. His assistant. And the senator’s beloved Chesapeake Bay retriever.

The challenge to presenting them all? There’s only one actor.

Matt Daniels is the actor essaying this challenge for In Tandem Theatre’s production of the play, which opens Feb. 21. He’s worked with the theatrical group several times in the past, on shows including The Chosen, in which he played a narrator similar to Blessing’s solo actor.

But in that production, Daniels had fellow actors supporting him. In Chesapeake, he stands alone — an exciting but terrifying prospect.

Shows that are written for one actor playing multiple roles tend to go one of two ways: Either the actor impersonates each character or goes for a broader, storytelling approach. Daniels says he’s working with director Chris Flieller to find a balance between the two approaches. His emphasis is on the dialogue, which he describes as lovely to listen to.

“The method of storytelling is very much like reading a short story,” Daniels says.

Chesapeake contains a lot more plot than the average one-man show. The first act encompasses a whole play’s worth of material. Daniels must set up the backstory, then portray the artist Kerr kidnapping the senator’s “all-American dog” and teaching it tricks that will embarrass the senator at his next news conference.

At the end of the first act, things go horribly awry, according to Daniels and Flieller. The rest of the play “is all about the surprise of what happens” next, Flieller says.

Suffice it to say the surprise is large enough to double the plot, as well as the skill needed to present it. Daniels describes the result as “something highly theatrical.”

“I hope the virtuosity of the piece is exciting,” Daniels says. 

Elaborate scenery isn’t required for a play like Chesapeake. “You could do this in front of a campfire, you could do this in a living room,” Flieller says.

But designer Joe Brhel has created a tiered set that Flieller and Daniels say helps to structure the telling of the story.

Flieller says he’s excited to learn how Milwaukee audiences will respond to the play, which employs humor and wit in examining the very serious subject of politics in arts funding. Daniels, who was hand-picked for the role before the season was booked, is an actor with the potential to carry off the complex balancing act that Blessing’s work presents, Flieller says.

Editor’s note: Let WiG know how you think Daniels pulls off the role. After seeing the play, tweet comments to @wigazette, using #Chesapeake.

On stage

Chesapeake opens Feb. 21 and runs through March 16, with performances at 7:30 p.m. weeknights, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 or $23 for students and seniors. Call 414-271-1371 or visit intandemteatre.org.