To grasp the current state of the Rude Mechs, the renowned Austin performance collective that will soon turn 25, one must see them in performance.
For best effect, not infrequently.
This conclusion might seem painfully obvious. Yet I suspect a big chunk of those who customarily follow the arts in Austin knows the group these days mainly through their global reputation. They tour frequently. And word has been out about the Rude Mechs for almost a generation.
So to revisit “The Method Gun,” a 2007 play by Austin’s Kirk Lynn, frequently revised, about a group of performers who rehearse a short piece for nine years after their acting guru disappears, is to rediscover the group’s fundamental character and substance.
Seeing “The Method Gun” at the University of Texas on the broad B. Iden Payne stage carries special significance, too. To my knowledge, during its entire history, the university has named only one Austin troupe as its ongoing resident theater company. UT hired only one troupe’s active playwright, the gifted Lynn, to teach on its faculty.
And since the ill-fated Actors Repertory of Texas presented Tennessee Williams’ once-lost “Spring Storm” there in 1999, the Payne has not hosted a production from an Austin theater troupe as part of the training department’s main stage season.
At least not in my memory. (As always, corrections welcome.)
After seeing “The Method Gun” on Friday, it seems clear that, in fact, every theater school across the country should book this play, which explores the ghastly vulnerability of actors, their related attraction to cults and systems, and their ultimate ability, when all goes right, to spin their psychological straw into performance gold.
Twelve years after its premiere, the Rude Mechs have added extra layers to this show-within-a-show-within-a-show. On one level, you watch the five Austin artists onstage in versions of themselves, addressing the audience, passing out tasks, recounting versions of the play’s history, charming everyone with their sincerity.
On another level, you get to know the damaged fictional acolytes of an actor-training guru from the 1960s and ‘70s. Alone and together, they execute acting exercises, such as kissing to a count. They rehearse snatches of Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but without the main four characters. They also behave as any five flawed humans would behave who have been cooped up together for at least nine years.
The inner secret of the show, however, is the cut-down “Streetcar.” Williams’ secondary characters earn only a few dozen lines, since Blanche, Stanley, Stella and Mitch take up almost all the action set in New Orleans’ French Quarter. So acted out, their portion of the classic play lasts maybe 10 minutes, which must appear mysterious to those in the audience who don’t know the drama well.
Nine years to rehearse 10 minutes.
It’s a stroke of fanatical brilliance in the manner of Andre Gregory or Peter Brook's quixotic projects, or something on the imaginative scale of Jacques Rivett and Suzanne Schiffman’s “Out 1,” a nearly 13-hour movie about rehearsals for two Greek tragedies that are never performed. (The marathon recently played Alamo Drafthouse downtown and is available on DVD.)
Kirk Lynn’s “The Method Gun,” blessedly, is just 90 minutes without intermission. Ninety minutes of euphoria. The five-person ensemble, directed by Shawn Sides, is as tight as ever, with Joey Hood giving the role formerly played by Jason Liebrecht a darker, more haunted presence. Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley and Sides return to the project with their seemingly effortless comic timing and minutely shaded psychological studies.
The actor who has always taken this particular exercise one step further into the unknown is Thomas Graves. Tall, wiry and precise, he plays an awkward, easily bruised character whose social and artistic frustrations culminate in a wild, goofy, spectacular solo dance.
The show’s second-to-last coup de théâtre — it involves heavy swinging lamps — is still sensational, dangerous, chilling and sublime, in the Roman meaning of the word, so memorably, terrifyingly beautiful.