Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday Night on the Lower East Side: National Theater of the USA's CHAUTAUQUA! at East River Park

At South Street Seaport we caught the M15 bus, which we took on a trip through Chinatown and the Lower East Side, getting off at Allen and Delancey Streets. Then we walked along Delancey and over the FDR Drive to East River Park, whose amphitheater tonight featured tha Natonal Theater of the USA's Chautauqua!, channeling the form and style of the original Chautauqua lecture circuit with a wry postmodern twist.

Presented by CityParks Theater, Chautauqua! was an invigorating evening of theater, history, storytelling, song, dance, comedy and fun - both intellectually stimulating and effervescently entertaining.

We'd been to East River Park years ago, but never to the amphitheater. Interestingly, a Chautauqua-style lecture by emcee Dick Pricey gave a history of the park and the amphitheater in the context of New York history; presumably they have other site-specific material when they tour with Chautauqua! It was kind of sad how few people showed up for what was a wonderful free performance in a beautiful setting on a gorgeous night. (If nothing else, you get to look across the river and contemplate the beauty of the Brooklyn waterfront.)

This winter the National Theatre of the USA performed a version of Chautauqua! at PS 122. This is part of John Del Signore's take at Gothamist:
The National Theater of the United States of America [NTUSA] is not an official, federally-sanctioned performance troupe, but that's a trivial detail. This mischievous gang of innovators represents some of the best attributes of downtown "experimental" theater, and in the eight or nine years since their first production—a neo-vaudevillian romp staged in the tiny basement of a Times Square deli—they've come to earn their tongue-in-cheek title. That Obama's stimulus package doesn't allocate more financing for their endeavors is an outrage!

. . . Their inspiration here is the Chautauqua Circuit, a wildly popular lecture circuit that flourished across America from 1874 to the Great Depression, using family-friendly entertainment and enlightened discourse to educate rural residents on science, art, culture and progressive politics.

The evening is hosted by pedantic emcee Dick Pricey, a beanpole with piercing eyes and slicked-back hair, and staged just like a turn-of-the-century big tent Chautauqua. . . The design, replete with the sound of humming cicadas and hand-sewn curtains, sets just the right tone of remote, homespun Americana. Among the episodic presentations is a loopy lecture demonstrating what maps reveal about the consciousness of an era; a delirious puppet show about the savageries of the food chain; a spectacular traditional Cossack dance; a hypnotically funny rumination on some forgotten battle by a wizened, wheelchair-bound war veteran (my favorite part); and many more secrets and surprises sure to delight civilized attendees of all ages.

. . . 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.

And Paul Menard wrote in his Time Out New York review:
Reappropriating the early 20th century’s Tent Chautauquas — an educational movement that brought scholars to rural America to lecture on progressive politics, high art and temperance — Chautauqua! playfully investigates the deteriorating role of art in American society. Taking a tongue-in-cheek approach toward historical accuracy (there are pitchers of beer for the temperance-challenged), the NTUSA gang whips up a metatheatrical melting pot of educational lectures, historical slide shows and vaudevillian numbers, featuring a rotating roster of “special guest lecturers” from the downtown arts community.

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, as Chautauqua! offers a culturalbailout that’s much less pricey and far more stimulating.

We had no beer at East River Park, of course, and on the old coot in the wheelchair's garrulous reminiscences, we found parts boring and parts fascinatingly funny and silly, though the actress portraying him seemed quite effective.

The New Yorker also reviewed Chautauqua!:
The utterly original downtown outfit National Theater of the United States of America is known for their reconstruction of oft-forgotten performance genres. . . 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. . . [T]hey 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.

Other reviewers, including the New York Times, had good things to say about the winter PS 122 performance. We'd just like to add that some of the East River Park site-specific material was great. As NYC history freaks, it was interesting to hear the history of this area from the Lenape tribe to when it was Corlears Hook and the Wallabout Bay prison ships across the water in Brooklyn during the revolution.

Did the term hooker come about from the sex workers in the Corlears Hook area? Did Robert Moses destroy this park with the FDR Drive cutting it off from the rest of Manhattan or did he save it by expanding it through landfill and changing its mission as the largest park in Manhattan south of 59th Street?

Did you know that Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park began in East River Park in 1956 with a production of Julius Caesar that was not widely noticed until Papp went up to the New York Times office and refused to leave until they reviewed it? (The critic came, saw, and wrote a rave.)

Did you know that this wonderful amphitheater was saved from ruin and rebuilt by Erin Brokovich and her short-lived ABC series Challenge America? People in the audience laughed at this, thinking it was a joke, but it's not.

Special kudos also to Freedome Bradley, Director of Theater and Children's Programming for the CityParks Foundation, for putting on a top hat and period costume (he's actually a professional actor too) and giving an informative lecture about the CityParks Foundation and its many activities.

We've taken advantage this summer not only of its most famous program, SummerStage at Central Park, but also of its music, dance and theater programs in parks all over the city, mostly in underserved areas where people may not think stuff like theater is relevant to their lives.

Tonight's production, with a wonderful cast and a crew that must have done yeoman work to make all the changes necessary to give Chautauqua! even more force, was a prime example of the great New York tradition of making art available to the poor people of the city - namely, us - for free. Thanks to everyone and especially the National Theater of the United States of America for making it happen. It was a magical evening.

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