Many contemporary American plays are overstuffed with needless backstories and baroque explanations of plot. The Rude Mechs' The Method Gun, in its quiet way, is a corrective to all that. The members of the Austin-based experimental theater company understand that character is not backstory, that there is no narrative explanation for who a person is and what they might do. Some things remain strange, even when we do them ourselves. And that idea, the why of our actions, haunts every moment of the play.
The conceit is perfect: A group of actors struggles to put on a production of Tennessee Williams' seminal American drama, A Streetcar Named Desire—but uniquely without including any of the main characters. Stanley, Blanche, Stella, and Mitch don't get a look in. Instead, the actors focus only on minor characters and walk-on parts. Unsurprisingly, the cast members are at deep odds with what they are doing, not to mention that their leader and acting guru, Stella Burden, has disappeared. They know they’re ridiculous, failures, buffoons. America is a harsh land for those who don’t have the buffer of fame. What are you? What have you done? The Rude Mechs don’t so much critique the desire for motivation, as they show how shattering it is to need one.
The most awful moments in the production are often the funniest. Carl Reyholdt—a perfect name for an actor—gives a lecture at the University of Texas: When he tries to explain what he and his fellow actors attempted and how it connected to the departed Burden’s ideas, he can’t. Instead, Reyholdt dances. It’s the response of an idiot. The riotous, inexplicable moment leads to nothing and that’s the point: You can’t explain the strange alchemy between ideas and art, and especially people and art. Sometimes they just don’t add up, even after the fact. You can only watch in horror as this man attempts to shake himself free of what seem the most foolish of demons.
With the threat of foolishness, we sit back and laugh. We think we’ve seen this routine before—the backstage farce, the disastrous production, dumbass artists who believe too much. It’s easy to feel contempt for the delusional, especially if they’re looking for salvation in of all places the theater. We see the cast rehearse and it’s bad. We see the actors talk about their process and it’s embarrassing. And when one of the actresses, Elizabeth Johns (another perfect name), wants to quit at the last moment, you feel relief. They should keep this private. None of this should be made public. And yet, along with the actors on stage, we're plunged into an overwhelming anxiety. Johns' walkout is cosmic and soul crushing. How could an actor do that to another actor?
The threat of that type of emotional mayhem catches you off guard. Is there something we haven’t understood about what we’ve been watching? Surely the pay off will be awful and so why should we worry if they quit? As Johns claims, better to get a real job or invest what money that’s left in something lasting. It’s a question any artist over 30 has to ask and you feel the devastation on the stage— this is a savage attack, something a tiger might do for fun, and should never come from a fellow artist. Reyholdt’s response—“And what do you propose to do with all of us”—is a sad reminder of how fragile we are in relation to our beliefs and what we commit to.
The best theater is when you fear that the actors will die or suffer a grievous injury. It’s when you sense that you are witnessing something beautiful and unique and that it could be snatched away right before you. Few people are capable of creating beauty: That they can vanish from the world, as Stella Burden does for these actors, is terrifying. And death and mayhem are the threat in The Method Gun. When the “method gun” fires, it does so to challenge beauty’s annihilation, the threat that “everything that we have done is nothing.” That we learn that this is not true could only happen under an aesthetic as radical and sly as the Rude Mechs’.
The Method Gun runs from Nov. 11 -14 at Z Space in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit www.zspace.org.
Other places for a theater junkie to get his or her fix in the coming days:
The Rude Mechs is not only performing Method Gun this weekend at Z Space, but also staging another work, Stop Hitting Yourself, at the Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley, Nov. 19 - 22. For tickets and information visit www.calperformances.org.
The adventurous Curran: Under Construction series features magician-actor Steve Cuiffo channelling Lenny Bruce, 54 years to the day that Bruce actually performed at the Curran Theatre in downtown San Francisco. The show runs Nov. 19 - 21. For tickets and information visit www.sfcurran.com