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Slapstick with a historical punch

‘Chautauqua!’ a sardonic look at movement

From left: Normandy Raven Sherwood, James Stanley, Ean Sheehe (rear), Ilan Bachrach, and Jessica Hawley in the National Theater of the United States of America’s “Chautauqua!’’ From left: Normandy Raven Sherwood, James Stanley, Ean Sheehe (rear), Ilan Bachrach, and Jessica Hawley in the National Theater of the United States of America’s “Chautauqua!’’ (PS122)
By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2011

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NEW YORK — “Chautauqua!’’ is the latest work by the New York-based collective the National Theater of the United States of America, and might at first seem an odd creation for a group of experimenters with a yen for absurdism, spectacle, and the surreal. The show, which comes to the Institute of Contemporary Art tonight through Sunday, is based, after all, on the sober-sounding Chautauqua movement, the famed educational lecture series that flourished in this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and features an emcee dressed in period garb, standing at a podium, and talking eruditely on topics ranging from history to art.

But “Chautauqua!’’ dovetails with the company’s previous work, which combines a zest for American history and low-tech spectacle with a flair for the cerebral and a sardonic, slapstick aesthetic.

“We’re really interested in these historical aspects of American entertainment that go back into the 19th century — like the birth of spectacle or the history of popular entertainment in America,’’ says company member James Stanley, 40, sitting in a Brooklyn cafe alongside cohort Normandy Raven Sherwood on a recent sunny afternoon. (The company’s core also includes Yehuda Duenyas and Stanley’s wife, Jessica Hawley, in addition to several artists who float in and out, depending on the show.)

For more than a decade, the troupe with the tongue-in-cheek moniker has riffed on popular entertainment forms, from vaudeville to burlesque to Marx Brothers hijinks. It has engendered an enthusiastic following among hip downtown theatergoers with such funhouse-style shows as “What’s That on My HEAD!?!’’ in which the audience traveled on a literal moving ride through US history, set up as a sadistic game show, and “Abacus Black Strikes NOW!’’ which mashed up vampires, the Crusades, and cults to examine the nature of religious mythology.

“We’re often looking out for those moments that have that thing of being really earnest or heartbreaking but also absurd and ridiculous at the same time. We think there actually isn’t a contradiction between those things,’’ says Sherwood, 29.

“Chautauqua!’’ which premiered in New York in 2009 and later toured to several US cities, explores the history of the movement, which began as a training initiative for Sunday school teachers in 1874 on the banks of Lake Chautauqua in western New York. It blossomed into a national phenomenon of experimental adult education through the rise of independent “Daughter Chautauquas’’ and the growth of traveling “Tent Chautauquas.’’

Featuring lectures by some of the country’s leading speakers, teachers, thinkers, and preachers, the Chautauquas were geared toward families in isolated communities who were hungry for knowledge about the latest ideas in politics, economics, literature, science, religion, and more. People flocked from miles around to hear speakers of national renown (William Jennings Bryan drew big crowds), listen to live music, see plays, and talk about the great issues of the day in an open forum. By 1900, the Chautauqua model was catering to a burgeoning middle class, with popular entertainment, folk music, historical dramas, juggling, and dance added to the mix.

“What started out as a very high-minded idea initially — focused on high culture and education and giving people important information — eventually over time became a little bit more about entertainment and spectacle,’’ says Sherwood.

“It tells an amazing story about a period of time in American history when there was a real cultural transition taking place,’’ says Stanley. “Our show could actually embody the changes that were taking place through the various forms of lecture, performance, storytelling, and demonstration that the Chautauquas were all about.’’

But the company wasn’t interested in historical reenactment. As the show’s emcee, Dick Pricey (played by Stanley), says at the outset: “Our purpose isn’t so much to memorialize this historic movement as it is to reinvent it, to explore the complex dynamics of its own rise and fall.’’

Explains Stanley, “We want to actually provide information for people, engage with communities, and also have exciting lectures with local speakers and have local artists come and perform with us.’’

In the show, co-written by Stanley and Sherwood, there’s a hilariously antic lecture on maps, a sardonic reenactment of the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel, skits with hand puppets, and vaudeville-style numbers. But the program is also rejiggered for each venue and city, with rotating guest lecturers who draw on the history of the place and a finale composed by a local performance group.

“I was fascinated by how simultaneously old-fashioned and contemporary the show was,’’ says David Henry, program director at the ICA, who helped curate the local content for “Chautauqua!’’

In Boston, a New Orleans-style brass band will perform, and guest lecturers are organized around the theme of “Banned in Boston.’’ Tonight, author Neil Miller will talk about the Watch and Ward Society, the notorious Boston censorship and morals group, which operated from 1878 to the 1950s. Tomorrow, Marcyliena Morgan, professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard, will look at the civil rights era here, particularly the busing saga. And on Sunday, Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen will discuss the time Igor Stravinsky was arrested in the city for doing “an unpatriotic’’ version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.’’

The ICA finale will feature a collaboration between local burlesque-cabaret performer Karin Webb, the all-female drag-king group All the Kings Men, and the performers Babes in Boinkland.

“Everywhere the show has been, it’s created, like, a real community of people who come together around the show and support it,’’ says Stanley.

The Chautauquans’ emphasis on fostering a larger cultural community was an important theme. “We kept saying our show is like the opposite of Facebook, in a way. What we wanted to create was a kind of analog narrative,’’ says Duenyas, 37, in a phone interview. “It brings people together, but it’s completely alive, and it can only happen in that one time and that one moment, and then it’s gone forever. It’s an intimate, ephemeral experience among a group of people in a room, which is the essence of theater.’’

The show also addresses the commercial pressure Chautauquas were under to remain relevant and financially viable in an age when vaudeville and other popular entertainment forms began to flourish.

“We use that narrative to address the perennial struggles of people who are trying to earnestly make something of value in a culture of commerce,’’ says Stanley.

So what was their response to one supporter who said nobody would want to see a lecture show?

They added an exclamation mark to the title.

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

CHAUTAUQUA! National Theater of the United States of America

At: Institute of Contemporary Art, April 1-3. Tickets: $22-$25. 617-478-3103, www.icaboston.org