Theater review: ‘The Method Gun’ at Kirk Douglas Theatre
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Like many obsessive acting teachers and directors, Stella Burden, the enigmatic guru who haunts “The Method Gun,” preferred process to product, rehearsing plays without a performance deadline, engaging in all sorts of improvisational horseplay and generally seeking to make transformative discoveries from the most oblique angles.
The one big difference between Burden and her more famous contemporaries, such as Stella Adler, is that Burden is a figment of the frolicsome imagination of Rude Mechs, the adventurous theater ensemble based in Austin, Texas. Nonetheless, this piece, which opened Wednesday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of Radar L.A., the international theater festival now in full swing, pays humorous homage to her philosophy of acting, known simply as “The Approach.”
Here’s the setup for Rude Mechs’ fictional investigation: After Burden absconded to South America in 1972, her disciples were so beside themselves that they decided to continue their endless work on “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a version of Tennessee Williams’ play without the characters of Stanley, Stella, Mitch or Blanche. “The Method Gun” re-creates not just this oddball performance but also the nutty exercises and personal travails that shaped its development.
What might seem like a recipe for a winking satire on the con game of theatrical visionaries becomes a meditation on the mysterious inner dynamics of a troupe. The show’s style is playful and affectionate, though it’s looser than it needs to be. Under the capricious direction of Shawn Sides, who is part of the genial five-person ensemble, the production attempts to convey the wayward, messy and inefficient spirit of group collaboration that manages, despite itself, to get the job done. But as the cast members hopscotch around the eccentric rehearsal room set designed by Leilah Stewart, I was reminded of a distinction drawn by playwright Luigi Pirandello, who in an essay on his “Six Characters in Search of an Author” pointed out that to “depict chaos does not mean that one must proceed chaotically.” The casual spirit of “The Method Gun,” which is constructed out of a mix of phony history, larky stunts and light audience participation, falls at times into self-indulgence. But there are capering delights to be had, and the work ultimately succeeds in showing how theater at its most fraudulent can also be most true.
Decked out in ‘70s garb (costume designer Katey Gilligan’s exaggerated wardrobe never let you forget the era), Rude Mechs morphs into the Stella Burden Company. The rehearsal routine includes crying and kissing practice as well as more traditional scene work. The actors bicker and make up, flirt and get fed up. They contemplate a loaded gun kept in a birdcage to remind them that they have the power to kill one another. They do what they can to make the incidental characters of Williams’ drama seem, well, not wholly incidental.
Someone dresses up as a tiger because apparently every play would be better if it had one in it. Thomas Graves and E. Jason Liebrecht stroll around in the nude with bouquets of balloons tied to their privates.
The whimsy grows strained. But the production is redeemed by the hypnotizing choreography of the finale, in which movements are marvelously synchronized as cast members rush through “A Streetcar Named Desire” with lights swinging in and out to their path. The activities that brought them to this state of glorious unison may have a charlatan aspect to them, but you can’t argue with the seamlessness of the results.
‘The Method Gun,’ Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Consult theater website for schedule. Ends June 26. $25 (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes