Philadelphia Live Arts Festival Opens With Guns Blazing

Death-defying dramaturgical derring-do drives The Method Gun, a Friday night opening shot from Austin-based Rude Mechs signaling the commencement of the 15th Annual Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. (See Jeremy M. Barker’s March 3rd Culturebot review for an account of their NYC staging of the piece earlier this year.)

A loaded gun hangs precipitously in a Victorian birdcage with the specter of Chekhov threatening to open fire asudden, an obstacle course of unhinged light bulb pendulums swings perilously to and fro, theatrical exercises are executed with a fanatical fervor that promises to exhaust the company’s tear ducts and physical endurance, and a man in a plush tiger suit prefaces the production by issuing a warning that actors may be eaten at any moment.

While the artists offer unwavering rapid-fire displays of physical virtuosity, it’s an individual only alluded to onstage who serves as the person of greatest interest in the piece. The Method Gun is both 21-gun salute and armed assault on the legacy of one Stella Burden, a theatrical guru who took a powder to South America in 1972 never to be heard from again. The production alternates between lectures on the life and times of Ms. Burden and re-enactments of her company’s nine-year rehearsal of A Streetcar Named Desire in her absence.

A fictional construct who sprung entirely from the imaginations of the Rude Mechs, Stella Burden is the result of years of invented research. Her name is culled from Stella Adler of Stella Adler Studio fame, and Chris Burden, performance artist whose gunshot wound lives in infamy. Conjoining the modi operandi of her namesakes, she advocated an intensive risk-based training technique entitled The Approach, “the most dangerous acting technique in the world.” Prior to her departure for tropical climes, she bequeathed to her disciples a bar of soap in the shape of a tiger and a letter to be read only after being set aflame. As the performance unfolds and we are called upon to assess the risk faced by those onstage, the mythologized identity and manufactured archive of the dramatic doyenne remain more titillating than even the fate of the gun in the gilded cage.

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