How many times over the last ten years have you been embroiled in a conversation about what to call the last decade? The “Ohs”? The “Aughts”? I think part of the outpouring of relief two weeks ago when we entered the identifiable “Tweens” was due to having a commonly accepted label to put on our present historical period. When have the first ten years of a decade had anything in it worth remembering? What happened in 1905? What was the big news of 1810? Retro was popular in the 90s, but these days — sheesh! — you can’t swing a dead cat in a circle without hitting somebody who’s living like it’s 1899.
Is this a sign of national decadence and decline? The impulse to get back to a more wholesome time is surely behind the National Theater of the United States of America’s production of “Chautauqua!” at the Public theater.
The ostensible premise of the play is a return to “Chautauquas” that were popular throughout the USA from the 1870s to the Great Depression. Dick Pricey, Master of Ceremonies, says in his opening remarks that the original Chautauquas were intended to “strengthen the national fiber by educating and uplifting the common man.” This they did with lectures and performances of music and dance. The foundation of the original enterprise was religious and progressive in that great, inimitable 19th century way: a time when the popular, multi-denominational Christian Church agitated for prison reform and laws eliminating child labor. The speakers were men like William Jennings Bryan who advocated currency reform while keeping an audience of poorly educated farmers rapt for hours with his masterful rhetoric. Of course, the progressive’s greatest success was prohibition, and Bryan is best remembered as the guy who argued against Evolution and Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Dick Pricey has another axe to grind. “In an age that would seem to dictate against education as an enjoyable pastime,” he asks, “and would prefer instead the thrills of fancy dancing, fisticuffs, ironic jokes, people strutting about in short pants, swearing at you, where do the arts and the intellect stand in a world like this?” They suck, obvs. Isn’t it a bit suspicious that the Chautauquas disappeared around the same time television became the national pastime? (The first national broadcast was the World Series in 1945.) The whole premise of a Chautauqua (similar to the premise of theater) is that you can get a couple of hundred people together in one room to listen to somebody talk for an hour. Not only! Talk to us about how we are sinful and must strive for salvation. Good luck with that! If Jerry Springer and Jersey Shore have taught us anything, it’s that schadenfreude is a sure bet to plant our fat asses on the couch for an evening.
And so the dignified Dick is reduced to singing in the buff, enduring a bit of nightly public (pubic?) shame to entice audiences to the theater.
Here’s the deal with the stuff and the things: The show is often funny, but its anachronism is amateurish. They need a tighter script and lots more rehearsal. The most interesting part of the Chautauqua is the guest lecturer. Every night there is a new one. Last night it was Sinai Najafi speaking on microstates, those countries smaller than Lichtenstein (seriously), and imaginary states, places that claim to be a political body without actually possessing territory. Like Palestinians. The quirky, public lecture is really the heart of a Chautauqua, and it never really went out of style in NYC. Doesn’t anyone remember Trampoline Hall? They used to do a regular lecture gig at the Bowery Poetry Club, or someplace like it, for the first few years of the aughts. And every so often the great hall at Cooper Union is packed with the general public — as it has been since Lincoln gave a speech there — to hear some group of talkers pontificate. Getting a group of people to watch a lecture in New York City is easier than getting a bunch of crusty punks to beg for change on the steps of Union Square. The real trick, if the National Theater of the United States of America wants to do something impressive, will be to take this show on the road. If you can get a tent full of people to listen to a four hour argument for prison reform in Upper Arlington, Ohio, you have most definitely arrived.
After the guest is finished, the regulars in the company do their schtick. There was a funny but disappointing diatribe on maps in theory and practice, a story about the cycle of life that ends in a farcical “ethnic” dance, and a very long, rambling monologue by a woman in a wheelchair pretending to be a Civil War veteran. A clue to those who want to do intelligent absurdist theater: it should actually make sense on some level. Another clue for young actors in love with the declamatory style of the pre-electronic arts age: practice your delivery dammit! No pauses, no suttering, no slip ups! Memorize and recite as many long-ass Shakespearean monologues as you can fit into a lifetime! You have to overcome your own culture and upbringing, which disdains things like memory and oral performance that lasts more than five seconds.
The best act was a lecture / recreation of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It was intelligent, informative, on topic, and most of all entertaining. Also good was a history of the Public Theater complete with slides. That’s kind of trivia I like to hear. The end of the show was a medley of musicals that have played at the Public, performed, it seemed, by a goodly gaggle of NYU musical theater majors.
We get the point: popular culture rules, eggheads and nerds stay in school. Funny ‘cuz Mr. Pricey’s alter ego is pursuing a Ph D. at NYU.
Through January 17th
Buy advance tickets here: http://www.undertheradarfestival.com/index.php?p=2