Method in the Madness

This season’s second presentation in the Yale Rep and World Performance Project at Yale’s No Boundaries series was The Method Gun, a play/rehearsal-within-a-play written by Kirk Lynn, directed by Shawn Sides, and enacted by an ensemble, including Sides, called Rude Mechs (short for Mechanicals), from Austin, TX. Staged as a recreation of high points in a nine-year process of rehearsal for an avant-garde production of A Streetcar Named Desire (with each actor in the show playing an actor in the original production, from 1975), The Method Gun purports to elucidate “the approach”—a theatrical doctrine concocted by Stella Burden, a fictional drama teacher whose name pays tribute both to Stella Adler, of the famed acting studio that trained the young Brando for the stage, and Stella Kowalski, the wife of Stanley, the on-stage and, later, film role with which the young Brando was memorably associated (his well-known shout of “Stella” duly received comic acknowledgment in the course of The Method Gun).   In short, then, “the approach” mocks but also pays tongue-in-cheek tribute to theories of acting—as for instance Lee Strasberg's “method acting”—and there you have the primary attraction of this evening of theater: if you aren’t interested in how theater gets rehearsed and staged, you aren’t likely to find much in the show to like.

On the other hand, if you want to enter into the spirit of things, you have to be ready for a night of theater that consists of what seem to be improvs, bad readings of a classic play (Streetcar, in 1975, was staged without the dialogue or presence of the four main characters: Stanley, Stella, Blanche, and Mitch), at times believable, at times stilted “rehearsal” interaction, and various unexpected physical moments.  Some high points of the latter: Thomas Graves impromptu “dance,” involving contortions and much rhythmic falling about on the floor; the moment when Graves and E. Jason Liebrecht cavorted onstage nude, to the tune of King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight,” each with the strings of a collection of helium balloons tied to his penis; the point, late in the play, when five swinging pendulum lamps were set in motion simultaneously and the company had to thread its way amongst the paths—a rather “man on a flying trapeze” effect.

The fact that such moments might occur at any time gave the play its edge, such as it was.  Oh, and there was also the threat that a talking tiger, wearing dress pants and speaking into a mic, might appear at any moment and eat whichever character we were “most bored with.”  The tiger and his commentary was one of the few elements of outright comedy and as such was a crowd-pleaser.

What was less successful was the dialogue the cast spoke.  Whether improvised or actually written, their lines had little bite or wit and for the most part didn’t convincingly enact a troupe at their wits’ end after nine years of rehearsal.  Only occasionally—I seem to recall Shawn Sides being best at it—did a sense of frayed nerves come across.  If you’ve seen Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou, you know that watching endless rehearsal can be fascinating, but that was not the case here, particulary in the play’s first half.  By the time the overheads were telling us we were weeks, then days, away from the Streetcar performance, the pace did pick up, but that also had to do with the sense that a release from the company’s company was imminent.

And yet there were unusual experiences to be had.  When Sides, as Elizabeth Johns playing Eunice in Streetcar, welcomes Blanche to New Orleans she spoke directly to the audience and for a moment there was a disquieting sense of having to feel like Blanche, a stranger arriving in a strange land; and the predominant sense of the ‘70s was palpable, not only in the choice of a fairly obscure song like “Dancing in the Moonlight” (a radio tune in 1973), but in the dress and attitude of the cast—it was hard to say exactly why the kind of theater we were watching, in 2011, gained its energy from the experimental theater of the ‘70s, but the feeling was there and it was easy to imagine this young cast right at home in the earlier period.

And that, I think, is the point of the piece: a chance to think about how American theater, which got a big boost from Stella Adler’s studio in the ‘50s, with Brando in Streetcar as the iconic image, moved into the ‘70s, where experimental, off-the-wall approaches abounded, and on to our era where, we like to think, ensemble pieces about theatre can still find new boundaries to cross.

The Method Gun, written by Kirk Lynn, directed by Shawn Sides

Created by Rude Mechs

Yale Repertory Theatre and World Performance Project at Yale

February 23-26, 2011

and coming to Dance Theater Workshop, New York, March 2-12