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The Rude Mechs re-create an avant-garde masterpiece

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Theater makes for a slippery historical subject. We might think we understand much about a play from the script alone. And certainly the documents such as production notes and reviews that fill archives offer insight into how a production came together and was received by an audience (or at least by a critic).

But can we ever know what the experience of a particular production was?

It's a question that vexes curious minds, like those of the Rude Mechs, Austin's ever-adventurous and much-celebrated theater group.

On Thursday, the Rudes, as they're frequently called, will present their production of "The B. Beaver Animations," a 1969 experimental play by Lee Breuer, co-founder of the collaborative, avant-garde New York theater company Mabou Mines. Debuted in "B. Beaver" is an absurdist comedy about an anthropomorphized beaver trying desperately but futilely to build a dam to save his family, a metaphor for a writer who cannot write. With its stream-of-consciousness flurry of words, its inventive use of Japanese-inspired puppetry and its unique archetypical depiction of the human condition, "B. Beaver" immediately captured the attention of the art world and went on to have 450 performances in an ever-changing lineup of offbeat New York venues including galleries, museums and lofts.

The work of Breuer and Mabou Mines emerged as a linchpin in the development of avant-garde theater, becoming part of the creative trajectory that, decades later, leads theater collaboratives like the Rudes to today create the spirited and adventurous shows that have made them arguably the most consistently original theater-makers in Austin, if not Texas.

But rather than offer their interpretation of "B. Beaver," the Rudes aim to reproduce the original production as sincerely as possible.

"It's the most radical (approach)," says Terry O'Reilly, Mabou Mines co-artistic director who was involved in the original "B. Beaver" production. "We all know what an adaptation (of a play) is, but to try to do something exactly as it was done before, that's unusual."

O'Reilly has been in and out of Austin during the past few weeks, assisting the Rudes as they piece together the show.

O'Reilly says he was thrilled to learn that the Rudes have taken on the creative challenge of reproducing "B. Beaver." "I'm really looking forward to seeing the original production again," he said over coffee last week, taking a break with Shawn Sides, who is directing the show.

Like Mabou Mines — which is still a producing company — the Rudes are true collective, with several sharing the role of co-artistic director and creative decisions made collaboratively.

Still, Sides admits to finding it daunting to try to re-create the game-changing effect the work of Breuer and Mabou Mines had on contemporary theater.

Sides has used photos, O'Reilly's counsel and the few minutes of existing video of the original show to piece together how the production felt.

"With avant-garde (theater) works the text of the show is not the just words on the page, but the venue and the audience and the particular actors," she said.

But the Rudes have had success re-creating once-experimental plays before. In 2009, they restaged Richard Schechner's "Dionysus in 69," another boldly experimental play that later became regarded as a seminal work of conceptual and environmental theater. (A young Brian De Palma made a film of the original production.)

Currently, some the Rudes are in Los Angeles performing "I've Never Been So Happy," their quirky, inventive musical at the Kirk Douglas Theater. (The show closes today, after a three-week run.) Last month, the company toured "The Method Gun," their critically lauded, virtuosic homage to the creative process, to festivals and venues in Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. In March, "The Method Gun" played New York, receiving praise from the often-terse New York critics.

Indeed, touring nationally and internationally has made up a good deal of the efforts of the Rudes in the past several years, making them the only Austin theater group that regularly takes its productions far beyond the Lone Star State.

Now, restaging "B. Beaver" provides the Rudes a way to connect their audience with a seminal influence on the Rudes' aesthetics — the kind of theatrical adventure that spawned the very theater the Rudes make now.

"Emulation is verification," said O'Reilly. "(‘B. Beaver') is worth doing again."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

"The B. Beaver Animations"