Billed as an “educative spectacular” Chautauqua! raised its “tent” last night at Mass MoCA in North Adams, for a clash between reality and imagination. It was a great success, offering a mix of erudition and outrageousness that delighted the full house in attendance. Presented by the National Theatre of the United States of America, its goal is to engage citizens in exploring complex subjects, often historical, sometimes hysterical.
This article is part review, part report and part political. Chautauqua! can do that to you.
The Chautauqua movement began as a response to the need for rural audiences to become more knowledgeable and progressive. And while faith, family and community were the basic building blocks of its format, in some ways it was an alternative to the popular religious “revival” meetings of the day with their simplistic solutions to the complex problems of an increasingly industrialized America. As Master of Ceremonies Dick Pricey (played by James Stanley) explained: “The Chautauqua was where reason triumphed over insult.” Given the current state of politics, we could use some of that today.
Based on that thought alone, the choice of Richard J. Alcombright as the evening’s Keynote Speaker was a stroke of genius. Those of us who lived through his first campaign for Mayor indeed found something different about the man. He would not insult his opponent, he just stated the facts as he saw them. Since in office, he has similarly let logic, not emotion, dictate the Mayor’s decisions, and set a new tone of openness and collaboration over issues that easily could divide the community.
His address was filled with humor, nostalgia and self-deprecating tales of growing up Polish, Catholic and being a “bouncing ball” kind of guy. He life was filled with sports, not the arts. As he put it, faith, family and community were the important things, but as North Adams changed, so did he. First as a banker, and now as Mayor, he has watched the community evolve, and spends his days trying to bring more jobs and growth to the city whose population has declined by 1/3 since its heyday. According to iBerkshires, he is now running for re-election. (They have video).
Never one to color what he has to say with oratorical flourishes or over-the-top exaggerations, he let his words carry the message. He admitted he didn’t know exactly where the city’s growth is going to come from, but with the new Science Center at MCLA, the growth of Mass MoCA and the cultural and artistic community, new businesses in the form of call centers and media businesses, it was going to happen.
He closed out his talk with a metaphor, the highlight of the evening. In it there are two children, one who is given everything and the other who is given just a gigantic pile of horse manure. In the end the one with everything is completely unhappy. The other is happy, laughing, throwing the dung all around. “Why?’ asks the Mayor. “I know there is a pony in here somewhere,” comes the answer.
“You know, I’m looking for that pony, too,” admitted the Mayor with a smile.Locals like me laughed their heads off at that one, but even those not close to the struggle saw the wisdom in that down-to-earth tale. I think we all learned from Alcombright’s simple analogy.
While Chautauqua! had many entertaining moments, it was this moment of honesty and unvarnished truth that made it so special.
The setting for the presentation was Mass MoCA’s Hunter Center theatre with its ability to handle split second multi-media slides while “flying” and “dropping” set pieces.
For one of the dance numbers they managed to have a grand piano on stage too. For the staff of Mass MoCA it was a both a challenge, and a triumph because it all happened effortlessly, so that the audience was not aware of the complicated mechanics that provide the foundation for the show.
If you were there, you can relive parts of the show from the brief video below. However, the traveling company is pared down to six actors, so not everything shown came to North Adams, the roller derby piece for example.
There was a lecture on the evolution of maps, the history of North Adams, Mass MoCA and the companies that went before. The Arnold Print Works, Sprague Electric were covered. There was also a section on historic duels, the clash between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Then there was ballet, sort of, and peculiar story-telling from someone who was supposed to be a Civil War survivor. The moustache occluded the face and made it difficult to make out what s/he was saying. And it was delivered virtually in a monotone. How this made it into the show is anyone’s guess.
Later, the dancing bird cage covers (seen in our lead photo) were delightful, and at the end, the emcee ended up divesting himself of his clothes.
In his opening talk, as a history lecturer, he had described the fate of the Chautauquas, which eventually fell prey to commercial, money making interests. As they grew into corporate circuits they had to expand their audiences and so began to play to the lowest common denominator. Vaudeville and burlesque infiltrated the once high minded enterprise. Since the culmination of the show was a radical departure from its beginnings, the corrupting influence of “free enterprise” on the arts and culture of a country became apparent. Today we wait to see what happens to our cultural legacy, and if we will lose federal funding of the arts, NPR and the like so that we can give tax breaks to the rich, and starve the poor both literally and figuratively.
But as with much of commercial culture, once the Chautauqua became a way to make money, it did not last. Today television is the mass medium that talks down to the people, entertaining them in return for watching commercials. And just as much of what is advertised on television last night quickly disappears, so will most of its programming.
Yet for the five hundred or so people who took part in Chautauqua! last night, the show has become a memorable experience, to be recalled and dwelled upon in the days and years to come. What will be remembered are the insights and images of the players infused into the show. It was entertainment, yes, but it was also – as their program stated – an educative spectacular.
The same might be said of the Mayor. Many in the audience knew little about Dick Alcombright. They now have a better grasp of him as a person. And an actor. We saw a little of both last night, and it was delightful.
The National Theatre of the United States of America presents Chautauqua! Directed by Yehuda Duenyas, Written by James Stanley and Normandy Raven Sherwood. Costumes and Props by Normandy Raven Sherwood and Jesse Hawley, Original Songs by Jesse Hawley, Lighting by Ben Kato, SOund by Yehuda Duenyas, Video Operations, Jamie Peterson, Technical Director, Neal Wilkinson.
Cast: James Stanley as Dick Pricey, Jesse Hawley as Priss Ferguson, Normandy Raven Sherwood as Lavender Holloran, Ean Sheehy as Tarleton Slocum, Mart Kalman as Luther Manship and Ilan Bachrach as Cob Bartlett.
April 9, 2011 at the Hunter Center of Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA. About 90 minutes.