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The National Theatre of the United States of America's take on the famous lecture circuit is consistently charming. logo
Matt Kalman, Jesse Hawley, and
Normandy Raven Sherwood in Chautauqua!
(© Justin Bernhaut)
There's no more reliably fun place than under the big top. That's where you find circuses, revivals, lectures. 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.

For those who don't know, Chautauquas crossed the country a century ago, bringing a high-low mix of edutainment. There were bits of history, sermons on temperance, and some wholesome singing and dancing. 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.

Entering the theater, you're not quite at the big show yet. First, you must navigate the fairgrounds, where performers mull about and the cheap beer flows (actually, in this case it's passed out free -- and refilled during the show by director Yehuda Duenyas). The action proper begins with the wheeling out of the master of ceremonies, Dick Pricey (James P. Stanley, who co-authored the piece with Normandy Raven Sherwood). With his penciled-in moustache lit from below a gnarled lectern, Stanley looks like he's setting the stage for a freak show -- and in a way he is.

Indeed, the freaks on display include a map enthusiast (Ean Sheehy), stand-ins for famous duelers (Sheehy and Ilan Bachrach), and a rotating special guest to provide local color. (At the performance I attended, it was playwright and poet Edgar Oliver, whose haltingly funny delivery of an awful poem put me in mind of a French Vincent Price.)

The entire cast (which includes Matt Kalman, Jesse Hawley, and Normandy Raven Sherwood) is entrancing. The sensational 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). For the somewhat inevitable musical climax, guest choreographer Faye Driscoll floods the stage with dancers of varied bodies and ability, ranging from the graceful, compact Nikki Zialcita to the adorably awkward Jeremy X. Halpern.

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