Monday, July 8, 2013

Chautauqua Travel Journal: Days 1 and 2

I must have come to the Chautauqua Institution, in the southwestern corner of New York State, at least a half dozen times over the years, and I have commented on this summer getaway--often characterized as an "intellectual Brigadoon"-- over the years. (See, for instance, this prior post of mine.) Each year, even though most of the structures of this Victorian gated, pedestrian-friendly  community appear unchanged, I always find something different. This year was no exception.

Day 1: On and Off the Road, Under a Heat Dome  

One difference was how I got here. Instead of taking an exit off the New York State Thruway, I drove on what promised to be the quicker Route 86. This turned out to be an unexpected source of stress, however. By the time I pulled onto the grounds, I was feeling exhausted and dispirited—even though I had previously looked forward to the theme this week: “America in 1863,” a continuation of a treatment of the Civil War (coinciding, of course, with the 150th anniversary of the conflict) that will stretch into 2015.

The focus of Chautauqua cultural life is the Amphitheater, the site of many performances and addresses by public figures (most notably, Franklin Roosevelt’s August 1936 “I Hate War” speech). Saturday night would witness a performance of Peter Grimes by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. With this year being the centennial of the birth of Benjamin Britten, I had formerly been curious about how the great English composer’s 1945 tragic opera would be staged. Given my exhaustion from the last stage of my trip, however, the grim subject matter (a withdrawn, cantankerous fishermen, widely suspected of abusing young apprentices, is marked for destruction by his village) was not something I was in the mood for.

Though the company offered a well-mounted version of the opera, it turned out to be longer than I could endure. After sitting through the prologue and first act, I chose a minute-long change of scene—the moment when many audience members chose to slip out—to make my getaway, too.  It didn’t matter that the action onstage—thunder and rain—was being echoed outside the amphitheater.

We all desperately needed air. Those of us who could made it out as soon as we could decently did so. We might have felt some pangs of conscience about leaving a show to which its personnel had devoted their hearts, souls and exceptional talents. On the other hand, Peter Grimes showed every sign of going well past the 10 o’clock ending for most amphitheater performances. (In fact, it did not stop until 11 pm, three sweat-filled hours after it began.) Enduring the agony of a steambath—heck, stumbling blindly around under a heat dome--was out of the question. (I don’t even want to think about the agony of the singers and musicians all dressed up.)

(As it happened, another drama was occurring in the amphitheater, aside from the onstage drama or the internal struggle of audience members like me. An audience member had fallen at the Main Gate of Chautauqua, but insisted adamantly on attending the performance of Peter Grimes. By the time he made it to his set, the bleeding from his leg produced considerable consternation among the volunteers, who rushed around frantically to get him immediate medical attention.)

I kid you not: The terrible humidity of Saturday afternoon was continuing well into the evening. In fact, the air conditioning in my room seemed powerless, for the longest time, against the mugginess. I wondered when my fire-engine-red face would ever cool off again. At last, after midnight, the humidity began, blessedly, to recede.

Day 2: Mental Renewal

I felt renewed and refreshed on Sunday morning. At breakfast, a couple from my inn who had befriended me these last few years put me in a far better mood than I had been the day before. I had never experienced a full Sunday at Chautauqua. Now, I was in the proper mood to appreciate it.

The reigning spirit of Chautauqua might be best described as intellectually questing Protestantism—not surprising, as the village began as a two-week, outdoor normal school for Sunday School workers. Catholic services throughout the week are held on three different sites. The 9:15 mass I attended on Sunday morning was held in something the Hall of Christ, but the structure, dating back from the early 1900s, looks more like a classical temple, with Ionic columns in front and an interior whose studied plainness makes it rather different from the stained-glass, statue-dominated facilities that Catholics are intimately familiar with. (On the other hand, the message of the sermon—the need to go beyond just obeying the laws of God, to offer comfort, not just words of comfort, to all the “deeply wounded” people one meets—was something that all Catholics—indeed, everyone—should identify with.)

Following Mass, I rambled around the grounds with my small digital camera. After several times here, I think I’ve managed to photograph most of the buildings in this picturesque village. But the flower and plant life here continually impresses me with its range and beauty, and I tried to record as much as I could in a limited period.

Most Chautauquans wish there was as much variety among eateries here as in the flora. There are, by my count, only four such establishments on the grounds. It was with some pleasure, then, that I noticed that the Fire Department would have a barbeque chicken lunch around midday. The $10 charge brought a substantial amount of food—and, besides, went to a good cause.

Sixty artists got to display their wares in “Art in the Park,” in Miller Park, close by Chautauqua Lake. In other years, I came in at the tail end of these displays in the afternoon. It was far better to see all of this toward the beginning.

From past experiences, I know that if you hope to obtain a ticket for a play at the Chautauqua Theater Company, it’s best to buy in advance; otherwise, if you wait to buy it at the Bratton Theater, the show might be sold out. With that in mind, and particularly with the thought that the first show of this 30th anniversary season, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, might be in high demand, I phoned a few days ahead.

Just before the show, I attended a discussion of the play held by the Friends of Chautauqua Theater. I didn’t have to worry that I would be ruining any surprises for myself: I had seen the 1958 film of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winner starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives; later TV versions starring Natalie Wood and Jessica Lange as Maggie; and the Broadway revival a few years ago with an all-black cast headed by James Earl Jones. (See my review of the latter here.)

I had seen two prior shows of the Chautauqua Theater Company: a very fine production in 2002 of the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart chestnut, Once in a Lifetime, and an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters that was deeply misguided. Luckily, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof turned out to be superb. Director Lisa Rothe and designer Lee Savage came up with a “bourbon wall”-- dozens of actual bottles rising from the floor to the ceiling, a stark visual representation of the pickled state of ex-college football star Brick Pollitt. Just as striking, the bedroom shared by Brick and his sexually frustrated wife Maggie was visible from all sides, demonstrating the overwhelming lack of privacy they struggle with throughout the play.

Particularly fine in this production were Peter Mark Kendall as Brick and the show’s guest artist, Harris Yulin, as the self-made plantation owner Big Daddy. Kendall heightened the danger in a character regarded as weak (throwing his cane at Maggie in Act One, then revealing Big Daddy’s terminal-cancer diagnosis in Act Two—both actions taken, significantly, after Maggie and Big Daddy bring up the fraught question of Brick’s close relationship with deceased football buddy Skipper). Yulin, a fine character actor ubiquitous on TV, film and stage, revealed dimensions of paternal tenderness not usually associated with this overbearing, often profane patriarch.

The day ended with a “Sacred Song Service” in the evening in the Amphitheater. In keeping with the week’s theme, Glenn McClure’s Emancipation Oratorio was performed by the Rochester Oratorio Society, with baritone Soloist Lawrence Craig especially soul-stirring.

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