Five actors stand, facing downstage and smiling at the audience. One is in a brilliant orange jumpsuit. She holds an old, faded kitchen timer. On a whiteboard upstage, an overhead projector beams “Training Technique: CRYING PRACTICE.”
She sets the timer. The actors look into the audience. One whimpers, another is all fluttering lower lip, and for three minutes all five watch the audience and weep. The timer rings and they stop.
It’s an acting exercise so absurd, so clichéd that it’s oddly familiar.
The actors are members of the Austin-based ensemble company Rude Mechs. Their play, The Method Gun, opened Wednesday night at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City as Center Theatre Group’s contribution to the RADAR L.A. festival.
The Method Gun is the troupe’s take on the dangers of making art and an homage to how we learn and who we revere. The proposed object of reverence is the vanished acting teacher Stella (no, not that one … the other Stella, Stella Burden). Burden has abandoned her young acting troupe and decamped to the South American jungle, ditching the ensemble and forcing them to continue her training without her.
They must perform one last production — of A Streetcar Named Desire — just the way she wanted it: Without Stanley, Stella, Mitch or Blanche. To honor the memory of their lost guru, the Rude Mechs attempt to re-create everything that made Stella special to them, including her outré training techniques. Thus, the crying.
The real target of The Method Gun is the American theater itself, placed under a microscope and portrayed with joyous, satirical abandon. Like the actors’ crying exercise, the conceit of the evening is to capture the absurdity lurking in the rituals of an actor, and specifically a member of an ensemble. The familiar drills are all there: the audition, the TV interview about the estranged Stella, the ensemble company implosion, the urge to simply sell all the stage equipment and bolt to Mexico.
There’s a smart complexity to the play and the production. You can see the shadows of other work in the way Kirk Lynn builds the script and also in its staging by Shawn Sides. You detect Pina Bausch and the work of Anne Bogart’s SITI Company in New York. There’s also a casual precision to the timing – beer cans pop at exactly the same second, for instance. The demanding choreography morphs from awkward gyrations into a dangerous dance that can be executed only by actors who work in concert and with a stunning physicality. The entire evening distills into a daring ballet.
So, OK, some people might dismiss the play as just another ensemble drill. And yes, The Method Gun has that element – plenty of physical moments that come together in a crescendo, a dramaturg’s dream. But here’s the catch: That familiarity, that repetition of form, is the way Rude Mechs tip their hat to those who came before them. Even the audience contributes; the actors ask everyone to “recall the teacher who influenced you more than any other living human.” In doing so, the show becomes more than just a witty satire with complex movement. It’s moving, period.
The Method Gun. RADAR L.A. Through Sun, June 26. 213-628-2772. http://www.redcat.org/radar-la/rude-mechs