The Method Gun
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
March 2, 2011
“Truth or beauty?” About midway through The Method Gun at Dance Theater Workshop, the audience is asked for a show of hands. In theater—as in most other art forms—these are two very loaded words. It’s not choice but balance between the two that’s the goal. With a gun that may or may not be loaded hanging in an upstage birdcage, a story that may or may not be true, and moments of mesmerizing beauty, the Austin, Texas-based troupe Rude Mechs manages to strike that balance.
Admittedly, this is the only Rude Mechs show I’ve seen, so I can’t say whether it’s representative of all their work, but I certainly hope it is. What I can say is that it is most definitely personal. Created by the company and written by Kirk Lynn, The Method Gun is structured as a piece of docudrama centered on the teachings and disciples of acting guru Stella Burden, and puts ensemble-driven theater under a microscope. More to the point, as a company with six Co-Producing Artistic Directors, the Rude Mechs are putting their ensemble-driven theater under a microscope. In fact, nowhere—in the piece or otherwise—does the company admit to having fabricated Burden and the mythos that surrounds her, leaving the slightest possibility that they somehow uncovered a hidden divot in the field of theater history. While the former is much more likely, the resulting bit of tension seems to be what they’re after—not the question of which facts are true, but whether factual truth matters at all. It makes for great theater. On a less esoteric level, it makes for great fun.
The story goes that Burden mysteriously left the U.S., and her company, in 1972 for South America in the midst of her nine-year rehearsal process for a production of A Streetcar Named Desire performed without Blanche, Stanley, Mitch, or Stella. And, yes, you read that correctly. Her ensemble went on without her, completing the process with the help of textbooks and a high-school filmstrip about acting, eventually performing the show just one time. The Method Gun purports to be an exploration of that process complete with a recreation of their Streetcar. During rehearsals, the actors engage in exercises like Kissing Practice, Crying Practice, and some sort of grid game with actors moving through boxes drawn on the floor containing words like Fight, Despair, Horse, Foreign Language in Repose, and Confrontational Vulgarity. They’re ridiculous to watch, but are they any more ridiculous than watching from the outside as actors do Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints or Sanford Meisner’s repetition exercises or Grotowski’s physical theater techniques? Would they be any more ridiculous than watching the Rude Mechs in their creative process? We’re outsiders and there’s a certain futility to trying to understand or explain creativity from the outside, or even from the inside. At times, some of the adherents of the Burden Approach seem as perplexed and conflicted by their devotion to “the other Stella” as we are. But the fact is that whatever they did in their process—and whatever the Rude Mechs did in theirs—led to the most literally breathtaking Streetcar sequence I’ve seen yet, one in which a falling poker chip caused gasps, full, as one character says earlier, “of tension and risk.” It seems that sometime truth and beauty are to be found in the ridiculous.
And there’s plenty more beautiful ridiculousness to be found here. A particular favorite involves precariously positioned bunches of multi-colored balloons. Leilah Stewart’s subtly violent set balances outlandishness, in elements like assaultively large neon spike marks and a barrage of bullet-ridden targets, with spot-on period detail; as do Katey Gilligan’s costumes, which reinforce the 1970s’ reputation for laughable fashion. Brian H. Scott’s lighting design and Graham Reynolds’s sound design provide subtle accents throughout, until the finale, when both move front and center in a wonderful way.
While successful overall, The Method Gun does have its problems. One is the inherent pitfall of theater about theater—whether or not it functions as too much of an inside joke, preaching only to the converted—and I’m not sure Gun evades this trap entirely. The repeated appearance of a talking tiger—which, as voiced by E. Jason Liebrecht, sounds remarkably similar to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog—becomes somewhat tiresome and begins to feel like an early idea that should have been cut, or at least trimmed, somewhere along the line. The uniformly excellent performances don’t make up for some unevenness in character development. This may be intentional on Lynn’s part, as the Rude Mechs supposedly got more access and cooperation from certain members of Burden’s company than others. Even if that’s the case, it means that our portraits of them alternate between hazy and crystal clear. One of the latter is Carl Reyholt, as played with a peculiar and awkward specificity by Thomas Graves. His bumbling monologue “of self-composition” for Stella and a later lecture that turns into a dance of complete abandon are highlights of the show. As clearly defined as Reyholt is, other characters tend to fade into the background. At one point, Hannah Kenah’s Connie Torrey states one of theater’s biggest truisms: “We can’t all be the star. Someone has to play the small roles.” Even for a play with no star, it turns out some roles are smaller than others.
While The Method Gun’s Stella Burden, her company, and their seminal performance of A Streetcar Named Desire may be fake, the beauty of watching it unfold is not. And, besides, why shouldn’t it be fake? Of course it’s fake. It’s theater.