TBA:11/ Rude Mechs, ‘The Method Gun’: art and self-reflection

The Rude Mechs in "Method Gun"/Courtesy of G. Wilson and TBA

I approached the Rude Mechs show The Method Gun with some skepticism. I generally detest art about art, with its usual insider references (or so I thought) and the premise sounded  oh-so-meta: a theater piece about a theater company’s staging of a theater production. Happily, the Austin-based company merely used the subject matter as a vehicle to do what the best theater always does: tells us about who we are and why we do what we do. In giving us a deliciously deceptive story about art, they’re telling us about ourselves, artists and non artists alike.

It’s really a story about an absence — though not the big lacuna alleged in the story, which concerns a famous (though fictional) theater director named Stella Burden, who devised a way of making theater more real called “The Approach,” and if this sounds suspiciously like a famous nonfictional Stella (Adler) and “The Method” she created, it’s hardly an accident. (As for the surname, I wonder if it references the Los Angeles artist Chris Burden, who wanted to make art with so much impact that he staged a performance in which a collaborator actually shot him. He survived and is happily making art to this day; I visited his Los Angeles studio a few years ago, where he was making a big installation involving old lightposts.)

Stella B’s conceit is to stage a version of A Streetcar Named Desire — without Stanley, Stella, Mitch or Blanche. Like them, Burden never appears in The Method Gun. The show is about the actors she left behind, somewhat like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is about the bit players in Hamlet. “She gave us ourselves, and now we don’t even have that,” one wails.

So the stage seemed to be set: This would be yet another wry, cynical work (like everything from the old Family Ties TV show to the film A Mighty Wind to a parade of late night talk show hosts and postmodern visual artists) that lampooned the oh-so-intense and committed artists and activists of the 1950s and ‘60s. Setting the story mostly in the mid-1970s, when so many ideals seemed to be crumbling in the face of counterattack, the reality of our own inability to maintain our ideals, and self indulgence — or maybe it was all because of the twin evils of Nixon and disco — seemed appropriate to that strategy. True believers are always an easy and deserving target, to be sure, and who doesn’t love great satire? But too often, I’ve found the perpetrators, not to mention our artistic culture, desperately lacking those qualities of idealism, commitment, and intensity that they satirize. They’re often poodles peeing on the Lincoln Memorial, jealously eager to bring low what they can’t hope to achieve themselves.

Thankfully, the unreliable narrators and theater artists of Rude Mechs didn’t succumb to that temptation. (Toward the end, there’s even that most clichéd of moments: a group hug that feels sincere and touching.) Sure, there’s no shortage of appropriate mockery going on, but instead of indulging in postmod sneering at sincerity, somewhere in the elaborate process of creating this fictional company and its backstory, the Mechs found a poignant story about the nature of belief, of the constant human search for the latest guru or leader to tell them how to live and what to do. In the end, we discover that instead of watching leaders or even parking meters, we can find what we’re seeking in each other — in our cooperative creation of art, or community, or anything else human beings can contrive together.

Certainly Rude Mechs themselves embody that philosophy. For all their much-praised innovations, they also succeed because they’re enormously compelling and cooperative artists and actors, able to make us really care about these sham characters through terrific acting and writing, even while we’re aware of the many levels and lies at play onstage — any stage, including Shakespeare’s. He was a master of playing with that dichotomy. (Come to think of it, one of my favorite plays is Michael Frayn’s hilarious Noises Off, and another is Orson’s Shadow. Plus there’s Fellini’s , Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s magnificent recent Equivocation, Borges, Calvino, Cervantes, Pynchon, Monty Python…. Hmm, maybe there is something to this art about art stuff after all.) It’s very funny — there’s even a talking tiger who gets some of the best lines — but it’s not merely funny.

The Method Gun shows that art about art can also tell us something about the rest of human endeavor, since really, art is just one more thing we humans collaborate to create. And in best post-mod form, like David Byrne’s True Stories, Matt Groening’s Futurama, Mike Judge’s King of the Hill, and even Kyle Abraham’s TBA triumph The Radio Show, the company manages the difficult trick of gently poking fun at a subject while acknowledging what we admire about it — in this case, artists’ willingness to commit themselves to a cooperative, idealistic pursuit of art.

Often, really groundbreaking art will seem silly or stupid at the time (as composers, for example, from Igor Stravinsky to John Cage to Ornette Coleman famously learned), only to wind up being enormously popular, influential or historically significant. Sometimes, as in the case of the fictional Stella Burden, it really will amount to nothing beyond the ridiculous. But creative artists have to take the risk of their ambitious, cockeyed visions, not knowing how the work will ultimately be regarded. That commitment in the face of uncertain outcome creates a naturally fraught and potentially tragic — or comic — situation. The Method Gun says there’s value in the process of taking that risk, even when it fails.

The shockingly beautiful closing scene, using the trick of quickly re-enacting the whole Streetcar production (which we’ve seen only in fragments up to this point) — adds a striking physical metaphor to the whole setup that silently vaults The Method Gun beyond self-referential satire. I won’t describe it here, because you really need to experience it unprepared. A very successful Portland visual artist friend I saw the show with wondered whether the breathtaking stage device that animates the conclusion represented the obstacles that artists often place upon their work in order to inspire creativity, like the musical processes composers like Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage imposed upon their creations.

“My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles,” that most creative of 20th century composers, Igor Stravinsky, wrote. “Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” That could be it.

But I also suspect that the tense closing scene, with its expert timing and perfectly choreographed cooperation among the players, may be a metaphor for artistic achievement: that even if the supposed end of the process (that preposterous concept of a Stella-less Streetcar) isn’t worthwhile, maybe the committed, cooperative effort that it takes to pull it off, in the face of so many potential pitfalls, when even one slip could bring disaster, is really what matters. That to the audience, art may be about the destination, but to artists, it’s also about the journey. And that, too, can be beautiful. Maybe that is a little meta, but it’s also a useful metaphor for the cooperative theatrical production we call civilization.

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