Following on the heels of the Tectonic Theater’s powerful Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later at ArtsEmerson, the Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun was something of a letdown. Much like the Tectonic Theater Project, the Austin, Texas based Rude Mechs (short for the Rude Mechanicals as in Midsummer Night’s Dream) are a collective, but one with different interests. The Tectonics focus on political and social issues, the Rude Mechs – judging by this performance – on parody, movement, and spectacle.
At the same time, the two companies draw on similar techniques, which have their base in epic theatre: visual projections, story-telling, directly addressing the audience, and stepping out of character, both to set up the plot and replace transitions.
The Method Gun humorously (if convolutedly) takes metatheatricality to its outer limits. A play within a play within a play, the show begins with a rumination on teachers, during which the audience is asked to write the name of the educator who most influenced them for good or bad and submit it to the actors. The names are placed in a bowl on an upstage curio cabinet, one of four significant props: the others are a statuette of a tiger, a gun, and an unopened letter.
The work’s central conceit is that a contemporary acting troupe undertakes a study of a fictive 1970s group of actor-disciples whose mentor, the awe-inspiring Stella Burden – took off for South America years before, leaving them in a theatrical lurch. Faithful to their guru, Burden’s actors continued working on their project – itself a collective creation – a production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in which the principal characters Blanche, Stanley, Stella, and Mitch are absent. Since only the minor characters appear, most of the dialogue has disappeared. According to legend, the play was rehearsed for nine years. Inspired by this dedication, the contemporary troupe explores Stella’s approach – as it is reverently referenced – and recreates the rehearsal process.
Although Stella’s approach and the title point the audience toward the famed and demanding acting teacher Stella Adler, exponent of Method acting, the “approach” exercises demonstrated by the actors – “crying” and “kissing” are formalistic, external, and purposely funny. That is, completely at odds with Method acting.
The play is structured as a series of vignettes, which move back and forth in time and place: the present day at the theatre where they are performing; Stella Burden’s Company Rehearsal Room, 1970s; New Orleans, 1940s. Rehearsals are interspersed with narration, monologues, dance, and a tiger who intermittently threatens to eat the actors. As a running joke, it isn’t funny. Conceivably, he embodies the danger that resides in Stella Burden’s approach. Like much in the play, it is left unexplained. Other gratuitous moments include two naked actors, one with balloons attached to his chest, the other with balloons attached to his penis.
In the final scene, their version of Streetcar is performed. Everything that we have seen rehearsed becomes magical and circus-like; bright lights descend and are swung back and forth as scene folds into scene. Recorded music plays, women sit, the tamale vendor comes by with his cart, men drink and play poker, men do stylized calisthenics, men and women dance, the actors playing the Doctor and Nurse come downstage and bow.
This ending is interrupted as the faux Streetcar and the play of the actors merge. The screen rises, the Tiger appears. The letter, containing a message from Stella, is opened by an actress, and set afire, but not before it reveals that their guru was scared. The Tiger and the actress leave. Actors practice crying. The upstage curio cabinet, a kind of altar to Stella, explodes. Someone is shot. All this destruction verifies Chekhov’s dictum that if a gun appears in the first act, it must be fired by the curtain. On the one hand, the ending seems to be resolved – Streetcar has finally been played, the myth of Stella Burden has literally exploded and burned – but, on the other, the audience is left wondering what it all meant.
It is very much an in-play, of most interest to people who have a connection to the theatre. Its humor and import depend upon a knowledge of Tennessee Williams’ drama. It is also a meditation upon the art of acting and the surrender of power to charismatic, authoritarian teachers who take on a god-like status. Perhaps, for this reason, students in the audience enjoyed the show more than the adults.
The five actors who make up the cast – Thomas Graves, Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley, E. Jason Liebrecht, and Shawn Sides, who is credited with the direction – perform skillfully, showing particular strength in their movement work.
The Method Gun
Written by Kirk Lynn
Production of the Rude Mechs
at ArtsEmerson, The Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Center, Boston, MA
Directed by Shawn Sides
Photo: Alan Simmons.
Thomas Graves, Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley, E. Jason Liebrecht, Shawn Sides
Scene Designer: Leigh Leilah Stewart
Costume Designer: Katey Gilligan
Lighting Designer: Brian H. Scott
Sound Designer/Composer: Graham Reynolds