Chautauqua!

VITAL ORGANS Jesse Hawley plays and Stanley provides backup.

VITAL ORGANS Jesse Hawley plays and Stanley provides backup.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Less than a week after the economic recovery bill was signed into law, the arty pranksters of The National Theater of the United States of America had to come along and steal Obama’s thunder. 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.

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.—Paul Menard

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P.S. 122. By James P. Stanley and Normandy Raven Sherwood. Performed by The National Theater of the United States of America. With ensemble cast. 1hr 30mins. No intermission.