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Exclamation Point
By Kevin Byrne

Created by the National Theatre of the United States of America
Written by James P. Stanley and Normandy Raven Sherwood
P.S. 122

Chautauqua tried to create an ideal America and Chautauqua! tried to create an ideal Chautauqua; both were impossible projects.

The National Theatre of the United States of America (NTUSA) has made failure an integral part of their dramaturgy for the past several productions. Their 2006 Abacus Black Strikes NOW!: The Rampant Justice of Abacus Black looked at the compromises people make for the sake of security and their 2008 production of Molière's Don Juan highlighted the changeable nature of even very pious people when faced with base stimuli. Human fallibility has always been celebrated in their shows, and for the company an equally human phenomenon is the construction of idealized concepts that cannot really be reached.

Their past work has been inspired by various performance styles from self-help seminars to game shows, but with the Chautauqua form they seem to have found a perfect reflection of their aesthetic mission. The Chautauqua tent show was a variety entertainment that toured the rural United States throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, spreading knowledge and nationalism. Its intent was to create stalwart, religious Americans, and it carried its contradictions within itself. The truths Chautauqua! holds to be self-evident are that the United States is in reality a country obsessed with violence, profit, and the pursuit of entertainment. NTUSA had only to amplify some of the Chautauqua's internalized tensions to expose this national enterprise. But more than just satirizing Chautauquas and the audiences that made them popular, the show was an elegy to a performance style it is no longer possible to present or watch without a large helping of irony and a small dollop of melancholy.

Chautauqua provided both the form and content of Chautauqua! It hewed to the tent shows' choppy vaudeville format while at the same time describing and performing the decline of their popularity. The performance included historical and philosophical lectures, a reenactment of a famous duel, numerous songs, a handful of dances, a puppet show/nature lecture, and random tidbits of local knowledge. It began with the introduction of Master of Ceremonies Dick Pricey (company member James P. Stanley), last seen introducing NTUSA's Don Juan. Pricey was lecturer, curator, and commentator, and his stuffy demeanor and stentorian tones recalled the traditional Chautauqua personnel--his reactions to the more bizarre antics of the other performers and his sometimes successful attempts at keeping a lid on the proceedings continually reaffirmed the distance between the contemporary audience's sensibilities and those of their Chautauqua forbearers. Stanley brought an uncomfortable earnestness to his role as professional scold, like a school dance chaperone whose job is to police the punch bowl.

The bulk of the piece was devoted to Chautauqua-style edutainment vignettes that barely hid a violent or exploitative core underneath a genteel exterior. The humor of these scenes, and they were very funny, was an interrelated mix of two comedic tensions: the amateurishness of the presentation contrasted with the dead seriousness of the presenters and the lofty aims of the lectures concealing the compromising, messy humanity actually on display.

An early lecture titled "Why I Like Maps" was an overview of European cartography from the Renaissance to the present that defended earlier maps full of speculation and wonderment, preferring them over newer, scientifically calibrated ones. One needn't be a hard-core Foucaultian to notice that in decrying the mathematical maps, created to show trade routes, the lecture was championing the individual discoverer over state-sponsored and money-driven institutions.

The nature lecture "In the Mud" exposed the eat-and-be-eaten processes in the chain of life from single-celled organisms all the way up to marauding Cossacks (by way of larvae, frog, bird, fox, bear, and vulture). This chain was dramatized by colorful puppets and masks, and the lack of blood or dismemberment did little to hide the Hobbesian bent of the thesis.

Another performance-within-a-performance was a reenactment of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton that led to the latter's death. It was a piece of history, of Americana, and of theatre, yet the drama and tension were undercut by long digressions in which the actor playing Hamilton stepped out of the scene to explain the niceties of dueling and the killing power of eighteenth-century pistols. In all these examples, greed was presented as triumphant and death as an unfair certainty, even as the lecturer tried to convince us that the world was otherwise.

Dick Pricey delivered a eulogy to the Chautauqua form as the performance drew to a close. Mass culture was certainly the villain of the piece, or rather its fated tragic outcome. The course of history drove the Chautauqua toward its own obsolescence as its repressed salaciousness was displayed cheaper, faster, and louder through its technologically distributed offspring.

To illustrate this, the shallow stage that had housed the earlier lectures opened to reveal a large space replete with black-leotarded dancers executing Merce Cunningham-esque movements with mock solemnity--a humorous, if obvious, way of sending up the pretensions of modern dance. The stage was then flooded with dancers in multi-colored outfits while the music and choreography changed to pure Flashdance. The saccharine sweetness and forced jocularity of the scene went from goofy to grating. I'm not sure if this was intentional, but the company demonstrated its affinity for the old-fashioned Chautauquas by choosing a truly obnoxious idiom for its representation of mass culture.

The final tableau of Chautauqua! was a fantastic vision that managed to be bizarre and also tender. The dancing morphed into a leg show, and a very literal one at that: a surreal kick-line of bare legs with upper torsos hidden beneath clever costume contraptions. The flash-dancers lined up along the back wall, supporting the letters of a huge blinking sign: CHAUTAUQUA! And then Dick Pricey, defender of all things Chautauqua, began undressing with the same awkward earnestness that characterized his other duties as emcee. It was, he said, an act of love. We, the people, demanded this of him. Stripped bare by his audience, Pricey confessed, "Now may be the best time to tell you, we were paid to be here tonight." He explained that an influential backer of the show forced the company to add the more prurient spectacles and also forced them to punctuate the show's title with an exclamation point. They didn't want to do it, but, times being what they are…

The play had little plot to speak of, other than presenting a nostalgic vision of a bygone America that the show itself kept undercutting. It was as sophisticated and pointed as NTUSA's previous endeavors, and also more moving and sentimental. This company has always found inspiration for their shows in various entertainment genres. With Chautauqua! they found moments of quiet sadness within the manic parody.


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