The Rude Mechs’ “The Method Gun” at DTW
One of the biggest challenges facing the arts these days is professionalization. Once upon a time, artists came to their field with mixed backgrounds and could speak to broader audiences from more diverse personal experiences. Today, with college and internships and MFA programs, artists can spend their entire lives just being artists. Which means that pretty much the only thing they know about is being an artist. And in turn they make art about what they know: novelists write novels about being novelists, musicians write songs about life on the road, indie filmmakers make self-referential low-budget movies about making low-budget movies, and theater artists make plays about theater artists.
The hope, of course, is that the intense examination of one’s own experience will ultimately reveal some bigger truth about the world. It rarely works out that way. What we’re usually left with is art that comes off as self-indulgent navel-gazing from people who willingly choose to divorce themselves from the everyday challenges of everyone else, and everyone else therefore duly doesn’t give a damn about their art.
But then again, every so often, it does work. Spectacularly.
A case in point is the Austin-based theater company the Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun, which opened last night at Dance Theater Workshop and runs through March 12 (tickets $30). Beginning as a gentle, tongue-in-cheek ribbing of the pretensions of experimental theater, by the end the Rude Mechs have overwhelmed you nearly to (and possibly past) the point of tears with a simple but very profound set of ideas, brilliantly executed, and wrapped-up without ever really resolving the mysteries that propel the hour and forty-minute show forward.
Wandering to the subway afterward, I tried to formulate something to say about it to our editorial assistant, who accompanied me, but I was left speechless. And what better way is there to leave a theater after a show?
Conceptually, The Method Gun is structured as a documentary play developed by the Rude Mechs. Their subject is the life and work of an obscure theater director named Stella Burden, who, in the Sixties, was developing a communal, collaborative ensemble company that sought to achieve a new level of theatrical authenticity in the model of the Living Theater et al. Then suddenly, in the early Seventies, she disappeared to South America. The Rude Mechs’ research began as an attempt to resuscitate her performance method, which she called “the Approach,” similar to Stella Adler’s “Method,” but what they ultimately found more fascinating was the story of what happened to her company after she disappeared. For several years, they continued rehearsing the show she’d been developing, which they performed exactly once: a production of A Streetcar Named Desire without the characters of Stanley, Stella, Blanche, and Mitch.
The Method Gun unfolds as a series of short scenes, tracing the Stella Burden Company’s rehearsals over the years, going through each scene of Streetcar, interspersed with re-enactments of interviews with the company members that jump forward nearly thirty years to the present, a motley assortment of would-be actors and idealists who themselves careen towards insanity. Occasionally the Rude Mechs break character to simply deliver lectures explaining Burden’s radical methods, which come from the stew of Sixties’ idealism. It’s Apocalypse Now meets Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, all leading up to a moment that recalls the power of Gob Squad’s Kitchen (the last show I saw that really surprised and affected me), where all the gimmicks and meta-commentary and conceptualization provide the context that finally reveals the raw, moving power of a work of art that is otherwise dead and lost to us.
The company would start rehearsal before dawn so they can watch the sun rise. They also drink at every rehearsal. Art comes from personal truth, so no one can have thoughts secret from the company. One woman prays constantly, and Burden instructed her to pray out loud, through a microphone. Her actors would write the names of people who inspired them on pieces of paper at the beginning of rehearsals, which she’d then burn both to honor and exorcise the influence of teachers. And finally there’s the “method gun” itself, which, in a Chris Burden-esque twist on Chekhov’s Gun, is simply the presence of actual loaded gun onstage at all times to introduce real risk into performance, since at any time anyone could shoot anyone else.
So yes, the script is, in fact, deeply referential and meta, but the result is brilliant. The members of Burden’s company go down a seemingly endless spiral of booze-fueled self-doubt, slavishly devoted to a guru who ironically preached complete artistic independence. The irony is biting. They’re tertiary figures in the history of American theater, playing secondary characters in one of America’s most famous plays, confused, lost children of Sixties idealism, giving up the best years of the lives in pursuit of a single artistic achievement.
But what the Rude Mechs pull out the miasma is a powerful, heartfelt story that achieves what virtually any performance method, from Adler to Burden, aims for: the representation of essential human dignity. The Rude Mechs bring these small-scale tragic characters to life, and the ending works a neat double-trick: on the one hand, it begs the question of whether or not art is worth the cost, while at the same time, the process of getting to the climax–the performance of Streetcar reduced to five minutes and featuring none of the main characters–provides you a context to see what they finally put up through fresh eyes, and it is, in a word, stunning.
All I can say is get tickets to this show. It is absolutely not to be missed.