When you take your theater seat just before the curtain goes up, but instead of lights dimming and opening music starting the actors come out, jump off the stage, hand you a slip of paper and tell you to write down your favorite teacher’s name, you quickly realize this probably isn’t like any play you’ve seen before. In the case of Friday’s Rude Mechanicals one-night-only presentation of The Method Gun at Vanderbilt University’s Langford Auditorium, you would certainly be right.
Everything about this performance is alien, from the costumes, set, lighting and music, to the format and even the actors themselves; all of it is unusual and new. At first it seems such a strange cacophony of confusion and randomness that one can be lost about where to look (or what to think), but as the show progresses what first seems sporadic and arbitrary begins to come together into a beautiful and mesmerizing look into the emotion, psyche, and struggle of the stage actor.
The Method Gun tells the story of a theater company in crisis. Their founder and mentor Stella Burden (aka “the other Stella”) has vanished, leaving the actors in the last few months of a nine-year-long rehearsal process for a bizarre production of the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire – their version doesn’t include main characters Stella, Blanche, Stanley and Mitch.
In the 1960s and 1970s, we learn, Burden was widely acclaimed for her acting method called The Approach. It is described as the “most dangerous acting technique in the world” and involves violence, sex and peril. The five actors left behind to complete the decidedly innovative Streetcar process (Thomas Graves, Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley, E. Jason Liebrecht, and Shawn Sides) struggle to maintain and understand The Approach while trying to keep the company together and the production on track.
The Method Gun, written by Kirk Lynn and directed by Sides, is set up as a series of short scenes that flow in and out of one another and alternate between rehearsal sessions, scenes from Streetcar, monologues, actor auditions, and real moments of the Rude Mechs (as they’re also known) explaining how they put the production together or why they chose this topic. It can all get rather confusing, but to help the audience they have an overhead projector up on stage that displays such titles as “Rehearsal, 7/20/1972” or “Streetcar Scene 9.” Aside from the projector, there isn’t much else in terms of props or set except for a few tables and chairs as well as several musical instruments including a piano, bongos, and cymbals.
The Rude Mechs themselves are about as unusual as their performance. They have awkwardness and honesty that works well for them; those qualities allow us to relate to, and find sincerity in, even the oddest moments in the show. All the actors have several roles onstage and off, acting as everything from co-producers and writers to stagehands and musicians.
A little background on the group: Since their 1995 founding the Austin, Texas-based troupe has written and performed 23 original works, for which they have in several instances received prestigious awards and grants. They also mentor students and teach workshops around the country, which is part of what inspired them to create The Method Gun in the first place.
The show is certainly not for the faint of heart. It is chock-full of R-rated and potentially dangerous elements during its 90-minute run including plenty of adult language, sexual references and situations, smoke and fire and gunshots as well as a scene featuring two male members of the group dancing across the stage completely naked with bunches of balloons tied to their, well, male members. At times it can overwhelm, but to the Rude Mechs’ credit, they make it all seem natural and earnest.
When all the oddity (like the strange appearance of a Hispanic tiger), hilarity and raw emotion come together, it creates an amazing work of art that brings new meaning to Stella’s quintessential question for her actors, “Truth or Beauty?” But whether you connect with the actors, understand and appreciate the purpose of the piece or not, you certainly leave the theater thinking. And I think that’s exactly what Stella Burden, and the Rude Mechs, would want.
Friday’s appearance by the Rude Mechs in The Method Gun is part of the 38th season of the Great Performances at Vanderbilt series. Program and residency are made possible in part by funding from the Vanderbilt University Department of Theatre. The next Great Performances event is C!RCA on April 4.
*Photo courtesy the Rude Mechanicals and Great Performances at Vanderbilt.