Sunday, March 01, 2009


At last, it has happened. Entertainment--with its gaudy lights and drooling lechers--has triumphed, and Intellectualism--with its gaudy brilliance and drooling lectures--has been shown the door. There to chronicle the collapse of both folk and high culture and the rise of mass culture is our very own National Theater of the United States who, from burlap potato-sacks to velvety red curtains, have brought the old-fashioned Chautauqua Lecture Circuit back to life--Chautauqua!

This, at least, is the gist of James P. Stanley and Normandy Raven Sherwood's script, presented largely in lecture format by the cast (using absurd pseudonyms) and guest artists, like the writer Samantha Hunt's tale of Nikola Tesla ("The Most Forgotten Man") and the choreographed "Culture Debates" from Faye Driscoll. Much to the dismay of the ringleader Dick Pricey (James P. Stanley), the audience seems more interested in the humorous bits--a wacky discourse on subjective cartography (ah, for that life-affirming uncertainty) and a creative example of the food chain, from puppet paramecium to faux-bunraku foxes ("In the Mud"). Though Pricey does his best to stay the course, the Chautauqua ends up being deconstructed--it falls apart during a lively re-enactment of the Hamilton/Burr duel--as does Pricey himself, succumbing to a strip-show whilst surrounded by a trio of veiled, dancing legs.

Yehuda Duenya's presentation is a clever one: each segment is so focused (giddily at times) on its own seriousness that it takes a moment to notice the gradual paring away not just of the set but of the play's own sensibility. Each segment grows less intelligent and more entertaining (though rest assured, Dickey's initial monologue is filled with enough sly humor), particularly as we travel from the history of Wall Street (in Stuyvesant's era) to the flashy red lights of Times Square (pre-Giuliani). Only rarely are there awkward transitions (a wheelchair-bound soldier's monologue is just too sedentary); on the whole, Chautauqua! earns its exclamation point, for better and, intentionally, worse.

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