MoCA show queries art

Do art and commerce intersect? If so, where and when? Where do the blurry lines between art and entertainment, or actor and spectator, lie? Do those lines even exist? The National Theater of the United States of America performed Chautauqua! at MASS MoCA in North Adams on Saturday night. According to its advertisement, Chautauqua! seeks to answer these queries about art, entertainment and theater. In his opening speech (not monologue, speech), Dick Pricey, played by James Stanley, claimed that the show would “explore our own status as artists and entertainers, as thinkers and theater-goers in an age that would seem to dictate against education as an enjoyable pastime.” However, while providing flashes of hilarity and entertainment, Chautauqua! certainly failed to address any of these questions in a meaningful or remotely satisfying way. From start to finish, the show had me craving some unifying concept or even a semblance of coherency, if only for the audience’s continued engagement.
The show’s lecture format greatly slowed its pace. Dick Pricey delivered the history of Chautauqua, a late 19th- and early 20th-century American adult education movement consisting of lectures and performances about religion, science and progressive thought, as a somewhat dry speech. He went on to give a brief history of North Adams, which had me wondering if I’d stumbled upon a rehearsal for next year’s “Where Am I?!” program (though Richard Alcombright, mayor of North Adams, gave an excellent and very frank speech on his 57-year Adams experience – the show often incorporates locals wherever it goes). While the Chautauqua theme might dictate some kind of lecture-oriented performance, the audience could only derive so much excitement from being talked at for 15 minutes. Dick Pricey’s frequent and funny breaking of the fourth wall served as the lecture’s only saving grace.
The cast infused the entire show with humor, talking to the audience and making it very clear that they were performers putting something on for our enjoyment. A crazed and hilarious lecture on map-making broke from the woodenness of the historical talks and a puppet show on the food chain followed by a chaotic dance number roused the audience. Yet these glimpses of humor afforded no real meaning to the show’s various disjointed acts.
Parts devoted to American history and space, such as the lecture on map-making, a reenactment of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and a long monologue from an old and crippled Civil War veteran, seemed to indicate that the performance sought to reveal something or voice an opinion about American culture or national identity. Such a goal seemed appropriate, considering that the show’s historical template, the Chautauqua movement, sought to strengthen the moral fiber of the national character by educating Americans in the arts and sciences. While I searched for possible poetic insights, though, I found none. Ultimately, the show had me doing a great deal of searching for meaning.
I looked for this unifying concept until the shocking end of the show. Directly before the closing number, Dick Pricey reluctantly stripped down naked center-stage (leaving absolutely nothing to the audience’s imagination). His apparent distaste for the Vaudeville exercise was hilarious and his nudity a surprise. Pricey then took a guitar to hide at least part of his nakedness and sang a nostalgic rendition of “Bright Lights” with the rest of the cast. While funny and surprising to say the least, Dick Pricey’s nakedness and the ensuing song did not save the show. In fact, it contributed to my sense of confusion as I exited the theater.
Ultimately, Chautauqua! was entertaining and interesting as an experiment in history, performance and the intersection of the two. The audience certainly laughed out loud more than once. However, it did not attempt to answer any challenging questions about art and so did not meet its goal. A change in the performance’s mission would re-orient its audience’s expectations.