Pearle Harbour's Chautauqua is befuddling but fun
Pearle Harbour’s Chautauqua
Written by Justin Miller. Directed by Byron Laviolette. Until Oct. 27 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Ave. TheatrePasseMuraille.com or 416-504-7529.
On one of the colder nights this month, an abrupt hit of fall after a summerlike hot streak, the warmth of Pearle Harbour’s white tent is alluring, a quiet hideaway set up inside the mainspace of Theatre Passe Muraille (production den by Joe Pagnan). Edison bulbs invite you in, vintage music soothes your nerves (perhaps along with a beverage from the bar), and kind-faced attendants encourage you to take a seat beside your fellow ... Chautauquans? Chautauqua-ites?
What Chautauqua exactly is never really solidifies through the 75-minute-long ceremony, but our leader Pearle Harbour — the ’40s-era drag creation of Justin Miller that combines the perfectionist esthetic of a Stepford Wife, the optimism of a scout leader, and the dry rapport of a lounge singer — is sure that whatever relief we’re looking for can be found within the four mantras of Chautauqua: Speak Truth, Live Pure, Right the Wrong, and Follow the Way (and a fifth from Pearle herself, “You betcha!”).
With the accompaniment of Brother Gantry (Steven Conway) on guitar and harmonica, referencing the con-man preacher in Elmer Gantry not accidentally, Pearle Harbour leads a performance presumably inspired by the real Chautauqua movement popular in the United States a century ago, where tents toured around the country with Catholic lecturers and musical acts. It’s easy to see Pearle Harbour as the last of her kind, refusing to take her tent off the circuit, treading the boards with songs — or hymns, as they’re described on the production’s paper-fan programs — like “One Tin Soldier” and “Come On Up To The House.”
Director Byron Laviolette helps maintain an eerie atmosphere in Pearle’s proceedings, landing somewhere in between Sunday school, a self-help conference, and a cult meeting (are we all about to come on up to the big house in the sky?). Laviolette, best known for directing all of Morro and Jasp’s clown projects, uses his experience with audience interaction to create moments that feel natural and earned, and which Miller — a practised drag queen who can banter with the best of them — can handle no matter if the participant is willing or not. And, as Pearle, Miller can turn on the soothing croons right after trembling about the evils and stresses that wait outside of the tent — this isn’t her first Chautauqua, and at the performance I was at, her followers were putty in her hand.
As enjoyable as Pearle is as our sermon leader, Chautauqua does feel like it could use a clearer guide to take us through the whole experience — a greater sense of purpose so that when things stray from her plan, we notice. Her eventual break from the script, resulting in a tense moment with a lightbulb, and her extreme response will have a greater impact with the audience. A couple false endings doesn’t help the unmoored aspects of the play get grounded.
It’s not clear what exactly a Chautauqua is, or what Pearle Harbour is preaching in it, but it’s fun to watch her do it.
Carly Maga is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @RadioMaga