Thursday, October 14, 2010

The actor's nightmare

You want to be an actor. And you know you have to get beyond your self-consciousness.

So your acting teacher instructs you to dance around naked, in front of a full house, with a big bouquet of helium balloons tied to your penis.

Think that's just some actor's nightmare? Well, think again - it happens in The Method Gun, by the Rude Mechanicals (this weekend only at the Paramount Theatre), a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the greatest acting guru who never lived, "Stella Burden."

And yes, the guys really do it (at left). Which gives you a sense that the "Rude Mechs" - a smart, laid-back gang from Austin, Texas, who seem a bit like the Elevator Repair Service on roller blades - are pretty much up for anything.

As for their mythical guru, "Stella Burden" - a kind of gonzo Stella Adler crossed with Jerzy Grotowski - she was up for more than anything; this hardly even counts as the most outrageous example of her brand of theatrical tough love. In fact her method - called "The Approach" - is a crazy quilt of exercises like "The Crying Game" and such Chekhovian demands as "there should ALWAYS be a loaded gun on stage!," which she inflicted on her acolytes over a rehearsal period of (wait for it) nine years. When her pupils requested explanations for her bizarre precepts, Burden would lock her answers in a box, then explain that they could be read if and only if they were also burnt at the same time. High-mindedly elusive and poetically contradictory, the guru's only commandment that really made sense was her insistence that "real beer should be drunk onstage all the time, no matter how early, no matter which brand."

And then she disappeared. To South America, people said - leaving her company stranded halfway through their nine-year rehearsal of her unique version of A Streetcar Named Desire - you know, the one that avoids completely the characters of Blanche, Stella, Stanley and Mitch. In other words, the version with only the bit players - a fact that perhaps weighed unconsciously on her intense little troupe.  But they decided to soldier on, and their struggle to realize the vision of a charismatic leader they never really understood - and who maybe made no sense at all - is the poignant subject of The Method Gun.

Clearly, whoever dreamt up "Stella Burden" - and I suppose it's author Kirk Lynn - knew something about theatre gurus; every form of method madness I can think of finds a funhouse mirror in his witty script. And just in case you lose sight of how "dangerous" all this navel-gazing is supposed to make the resulting theatre feel, a live tiger wanders through the audience every now and then (at right), musing that he might just kill one of the actors. Or maybe you.

Of course if you're not a theatre geek, much of this low-key but killer parody will either fly right over your head or under your radar. And even if you are, you may notice that The Method Gun is pretty loosely structured - I got the feeling different "exercises" might take the stage on any given night - and sometimes, unfortunately, a little under-energized. The Rude Mechs are long on conceptual wit, but short on the actual damaged intensity of the inbred, 70's-era theatre commune.

But all is forgiven during the show's lovely, haunting coda, in which we finally see (I think) Burden's vision of Streetcar. Or is what we see more of a metaphor for her vision of Streetcar? I wasn't quite sure - it certainly hardly grows out of her bizarre program of training. But that's okay - the performance is so precise, and yes, so beautifully risky, that this quibble not only doesn't matter, but rather may be central to the meaning of the evening. And in a sweet final flourish, the Rude Mechs enlist the crowd in a bit of audience participation (don't worry, there aren't any balloons!) that provides a touching tribute to every teacher who was both an inspiration and yes, a burden.

And so ArtsEmerson pretty much rocks on.

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