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Rude Mechs explore aesthetics' role in evolution in 'Now Now Oh Now'

Austin theater collective caps off two years of touring with new play, backed by arts grant, that blends diverse ideas into three-act piece

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Evolutionary biology. Aesthetic determinism. Live action role playing. Puzzles. The Brontë sisters. Choice versus chance.

The Rude Mechs are making a new play again. And, as usual, the celebrated Austin theater collective is pulling from seemingly disparate sources.

But, as usual, they've found a poetic and inventive way to blend multifarious ideas into one compact 90-minute play.

Well, sort of compact, that is.

"Now Now Oh Now," which opens today, is a three-act promenade piece. The small audience — capacity is 30 people a show — roams along with the action to three very different sets that make full use of the Rude Mechs' sprawling warehouse theater in East Austin.

A scientific seminar filled with philosophical inquiry. The nerdy, indulgent pleasures of participatory murder mystery theater. And the escapist fantasy found in acting out the characters from a genre story. Each becomes a theatrical situation for "Now Now Oh Now."

And the question at hand are this: Do perhaps aesthetics drive evolution more than we might think?

The Rudes have developing "Now Now Oh Now" for nearly two years.

"People think we make plays very slowly," jokes Lana Lesley, one of the company's six co-producing artistic directors, the essential team that leads the ensemble of more than two dozen theater artists. "But really we've worked on this show maybe only 10 weeks. It's just that those 10 weeks were stretched over two years."

The last two years have indeed been hectic for the Rudes, arguably the only true internationally touring theater troupe based in Austin. These days, it seems, the ensemble performs more shows out of town than in town.

Earlier this year they took their much-heralded show "The Method Gun" to Australia. Last year, the show toured across the country, including a stint at Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theater. Also at the Douglas, the Rudes presented their quirky alt musical "I've Never Been So Happy." And they've also toured their adventurous paean to experimental theater, "Dionysus in 69."

In between all the touring, the creative gestation for "Now Now" began.

The company started working on "Now Now" after netting a prestigious $100,000 grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts' National Theatre Pilot, a program of Creative Capital supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. (As part of the grant, the Rudes are looking at ways to tour "Now Now.")

True to their collaborative nature, the Rudes started the creative brainstorming as a group activity. (And yes, the cooperative nature of their work makes coming up with the list of credits for each Rude Mechs production awfully hard and full of nuance.)

"We started with a list of things we liked," says Madge Darlington, also a co-producing artistic director. "We all like lectures. We like games. And we've always been attracted to subcultures."

And then there was the theory of revolutionary aesthetics — the theory that aesthetic judgement is a biologically adapted ability and drives important decisions in life.

Certainly that could be said of the Rudes. Aesthetics drive their lives. Big aesthetic questions drive their plays. But lest things get too heady, fun pushed their mercurial work forward, too.

Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at 445-3699