nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 9, 2010
The blurb in the Under the Radar Festival booklet for Chautauqua! describes the piece as "a celebration of the culture we all share and the moment in which we share it." "Celebration" seems to overstate the case enormously, however; while I admit that some people in the audience appeared to be having a decent time, nothing on stage in this self-conscious, self-indulgent, uber-postmodern deconstructionist pseudo-meta-entertainment seemed celebratory to me. The appeal of this show by the National Theater of the United States of America (NTUSA), which has been around for a few years now, utterly eluded me.
The premise is that NTUSA will recreate and revive the Chautauqua shows that were a mainstay of American culture for about 60 years, from the 1870s until the 1930s. The best part of the show is its beginning, in which the history of Chautauquas is explained more or less straightforwardly by "Dr. Dick Pricey," a self-identified "star" of NTUSA who is portrayed by company member James Stanley. The information Stanley imparts is interesting, though his speech strains to make big connections between Chautauquas and the engines of capitalism and commerce, an over-reach that recurs throughout the show, to no real purpose. Stanley delivers this speech, which presumably he gives every night at this show, from notes, which he reads from sloppily, which I believe is not because he's incompetent but rather because everything in Chautauqua! is intended as a kind of send-up, and Stanley therefore means to parody the self-important homespun speaker. This, too, happens over and over again in the show, most regrettably in a segment in which Jesse Hawley portrays an old war veteran telling a pointless, rambling story in a pointlessly rambling (and insulting) manner.
Chautauquas were a kind of frontier vaudeville in their heyday, and there's a mix on the bill here that reflects that spirit. In addition to "Dr. Pricey's" lectures on the form and on the history of the place we're at, there's a "keynote speaker" (different every night; at the show I attended, it was the eccentric actor/storyteller/playwright Edgar Oliver, appearing all too briefly and without sufficient context to explain who he is); a re-enactment of a famous duel; a couple of songs; a raucous dance number; and a special finale, also inserted into the proceedings without sufficient context, created by choreographer John Carrafa, in which students from Pace and NYU's theatre programs perform a medley of songs from shows associated with the Public Theater (the selections are from A Chorus Line, Hair, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Up Against It!, Runaways, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Threepenny Opera; the last of these was actually a New York Shakespeare Festival presentation when they were in residence at Lincoln Center, and the translation used in this medley is oddly not the one used in that production).
The finale is Stanley taking off his clothes to prove that capitalism has won out: Chautauqua!, you see, has morphed into a burlesque show because we're all whores, following the money. (Don't worry, he keeps his naughty bits hidden; nothing in Chautauqua! is honest, not even the nudity.)
Everything in Chautauqua! is put over with a studied lackadaisical carelessness that basically says "screw you" to the audience and to whatever subject matter is at hand. The subtext throughout proclaims that nothing is of value. Maybe there's a kind of desperate entertainment to be had under such circumstances, but how can you expect to put on a celebration when you know in your heart of hearts there's nothing in the world worth celebrating? That's what NTUSA communicated to me in this depressing and unengaging evening. After 90 minutes of Chautauqua!, I was glad to get away.