Monday, March 2, 2009



By James P. Stanley and Normandy Raven Sherwood. The National Theater of the United States of America at PS 122. (CLOSED)

A few quibbles aside, critics find NTUSA's revival of a century-old touring-lecture tradition largely enchanting, praising in particular the extraordinary versatility of emcee/ecdysiast James P. Stanley. Apart from relishing the show's ample low-budget charms (and free whiskey as a bribe, according to Alexis Soloski), a few critics read deeper: Aaron Riccio hears a lament for cultural decline, while Jason Zinoman sees instead the blurring of brows high and low.

The New Yorker A
With a keen eye for design and a penchant for the surprising, the young ensemble miraculously keeps this fusty-sounding project from devolving into a simple museum piece. With a standout performance by James P. Stanley and a guest speaker every night, they turn this bizarre footnote in American history into a timely dissection of the relationship between the arts, urbanity, community, and economics. The result is more than the sum of its parts: a beautiful meditation on the ways in which we inherit the present.

Theatermania A
(Adam R. Perlman) Lectures? Yup, they can be fun, too -- at least when animated with the hyperactive imagination of a circus and the religious zeal of a revival as is the case with the consistently charming Chautauqua!, now at PS 122, courtesy of the National Theater of the United States of America...NTUSA brings to us their own Chautauqua, taking on the material with the geektastic precision of historical reenactors, cut with a cheeky sensibility and polished silliness that would make a traveling carnival proud...The entire cast (which includes Matt Kalman, Jesse Hawley, and Normandy Raven Sherwood) is entrancing. The sensational [James P.] Stanley is a quadruple threat -- actor, singer, writer, stripper -- and Sheehy's cartography rant had me missing the era of maps that depicted horses and birds (even though I hadn't previously been aware of that era).

New Yorker A
With a keen eye for design and a penchant for the surprising, the young ensemble miraculously keeps this fusty-sounding project from devolving into a simple museum piece. With a standout performance by James P. Stanley and a guest speaker every night, they turn this bizarre footnote in American history into a timely, beautiful meditation on the relationship between the arts, urbanity, community, and economics.

Gothamist A-
(John Del Signore) As is often the case, the smaller the budget, the bigger the magic...There are a couple missteps along the way—for one thing, a potentially amusing demonstration of "hobo symbology" is hobbled by deadly pacing—but from the get-go the troupe's idiosyncratic enthusiasm proves irresistible. And what makes Chautauqua! doubly effective is NTUSA's knack for balancing irony with sincerity; while winking at the audience from behind their atavistic affectations, they're also clearly fascinated by the Chautauqua Circuit's impact on American culture in the era before mass entertainment, when folks from all over would gather under a big tent for entertainment and edification.

Time Out NY A-
(Paul Menard) The President may have earmarked $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, but NTUSA has given us the rambunctious art party Chautauqua!—an ambitious cultural-stimulus package all its own...Throughout the frenetic festivities, the production deftly mines the tension between high and low culture while asking fairly insightful questions about the rise of capitalism, the demise of art and the democratization of culture. Admittedly, the show gets away from itself (a particularly leaden monologue delivered by a Civil War vet almost kills the momentum), and its lax structure pushes rough-hewn charm into frustration. But it’s easy to forgive these missteps.

The New York Times B+
(Jason Zinoman) A jaunty, stimulating new experiment..This downtown troupe, which refreshingly commits to its subject without poking fun, manages to stick to the contours of this obsolete form while also explaining with good humor its demise. Given the dense, lively script by Mr. Stanley and Normandy Raven Sherwood, the evening is unapologetically erudite, surprisingly theatrical and packed full of interesting facts...In one of the show’s better monologues, a wild-haired, obsessive Tarleton Sloacum (Ean Sheehy) gives a short history of maps that tracks how commercial interests changed the form from something fanciful and imaginative to increasingly rigid and rational. You might say the opposite process is being performed in this show.

That Sounds Cool B+
(Aaron Riccio) 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...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...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. B+
(Gyda Arber) This lecture is far from boring—Stanley's charisma is assisted by a hysterically funny Power Point presentation. The show itself is structured like a traditional Chautauqua, with a series of lectures, songs, dance numbers, and other entertainments, including a duel enactment and a puppet show. The show devolves, much like the Chautauqua movement itself, as we learn, into more base entertainment...The performance is at its best with Stanley at the helm—some of the other numbers are very funny, but others feel a bit thrown together at times. But what is amazing about the show is how much educational material is presented in a fun and entertaining evening...All of this information is presented in a most entertaining manner, with help from the very charming ensemble. The result leaves us wanting more Chautauquas.

Village Voice B+
(Alexis Soloski) Poses a tricky question: Can you sell out when you're barely getting paid? Chautauqua!, a pleasantly low-budget work, trades high art for vulgar kicks...Another cheerful lapse in integrity: P.S.122's artistic director tried to bribe me and The New York Times reviewer with whiskey. As ever, the design's a treat, with painted flats, potato-sack curtains, and faux down-home outfits, and the performers are wonderfully good, particularly stripper James P. Stanley and songstress Jesse Hawley. The cast speeds through "Regional and Local History," "Dance of the Cossacks," "The Culture Debates," "Bright Lights," and a dozen other items. The show is itself a bright light in the season—or maybe that's just the whiskey talking.

Backstage B+
(Gwen Orel) A theatrical riff on a lecture is still, in the end, a lecture. About 40 minutes in, it's hard to stay focused on the combination of history of the lectures, of New York, and presentation of theories about education and art, even though the accompanying slides are amusing...The proceedings seem a lot like a clever theatre-department presentation. In part that's because of the mostly wooden acting: That Chautauqua! is built on lectures does not excuse monotonous delivery; even a long piece given by a Civil War veteran in a wheelchair lands heavily on the ear...A big burlesque in the play's final moments and a sudden, surprisingly energetic dance number (with extra chorines beyond the company's seven players) to "On Broadway" do add punch.

The New Yorker A 13; Theatermania A 13; New Yorker A 13; Gothamist A- 12; TONY A- 12; The New York Times B+ 11; That Sounds Cool B+ 11; Nytheatre B+ 11; Village Voice B+ 11; Backstage B 10; TOTAL: 117/10=11.7 (A-)


Anonymous said...

Thank goodness I don't have to grade the shows I see, but this is at least a B+ if not an A-. I like being bribed!

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Your candor is appreciated, and your grade has accordingly been changed. Party on!

Gwen Orel said...

Well, if we're changing grades-- I would probably downgrade to a B. I liked the beer too, though.