What about Risk? What about it?
NEW YORK — As Tennessee William’s 100th birthday approaches, many theater companies around the country are resurrecting William’s work to pay homage to a man whose contributions to the American theater tradition are profound and too numerous to enumerate here. The Rude Mechanicals, or Rude Mechs as they abbreviate themselves, pay homage to another American theater tradition with their fucocked version of A Streetcar Named Desire: the experimental theater group. There are too many of these groundbreaking “groups” to name all of them, but just because of the sheer delight it brings me to write their names I will mention just a few: The Group Theater, The Living Theater, Five Lesbian Brothers, The Wooster Group. Each of these historic ensembles have brought a vibrancy and edge that invigorated the theater world like a shot of adrenalin. Of those mentioned, each work in a different vocabulary of aesthetics that ultimately unfurls from a core of belief about how the theater should relate to the world. Upon these beliefs the founders found it necessary to band together, enacting that other American tradition: idealism.
After seeing the Rude Mechanicals’ faux docu-drama, The Method Gun, this theater-goer was left wondering just what, if anything the “Mechs” hold near and dear as a core belief. The play documents “the search” for Stella Burden, a mysterious acting teacher from the 70s, who started an unnamed company, rehearsed A Streetcar Named Desire for many years (without the parts of Stella, Stanley, Blanche or Mitch) only to leave without word for South America. Her actors continued rehearsing the piece for several more years, applying “The Approach” (Stella Burden’s technique) hoping to perfect their performance. The Rude Mechanicals “re-enact” their rehearsals that took place in the 1970s, interrupted with biographical side-notes and information to help convey their “research.” At one point, early in the performance, Lana Lesley, prays that the ghost of Tennessee Williams will inhabit the stage during their performance (the one that took place 30 years ago or the one now?) and fill it with emotional honesty. Those prayers go unanswered. For all their pyrotechnics and sardonic parody, these actors, The Rude Mechs, can’t seem to bring sincerity to their performances, or their performances of performances, for the 90 minutes they inhabit the stage. Yes, there are tiger costumes, and choreography, and jokes that are funny if you’ve taken an acting class, but at no time did I feel that anyone was revealing anything of any real consequence.
Being earnest has an annoying downside of putting one at risk of sounding silly or being trite. The Rude Mechanicals are simply working in an ethos symptomatic of their time. In an age where we all seem to know better and roll our eyes at the naiveté of Alcott at Fruitlands or Schechner’s Dionysus 69, it is easier to occupy a position of sarcasm like a not for ready for prime time player, than it is to voice the idealistic yearnings within that long for a better world. (The Rude Mechanicals “resurrected” Schecner’s piece in 2009.) The Method Gun makes no lofty proclamations about what its theatrical experience will do for the audience, we are never implicated or forced to confront our preconceived notions as Shechner’s raw, visceral piece did in 1969. Instead, the audience giggles at stage inhabitants’ whismy, smirk at the insecurities of their 70s dopplegangers, but escape any moments of uncomfortable reflection. The night passes easily under the haze of mild amusement.
Towards the end of the piece, there are some attempts to show the difficult dynamics that plague any group that spends too much time together, something known to anyone who has worked a job or lived with a family. If the Rude Mechanical’s core belief is making work as a group then what about that endeavor demands investigation? What is it that they are trying to say? The fictional construct of Stella Burden’s “Approach” gives them the distance to parody the silliness and self-indulgence of actor training, but made it possible to avoid the brutal, self-effacing honesty found in the work of their predecessors, the Wooster Group. Here the “risks” suspiciously had quotes around them. Their fictional screens allow them to skirt the bigger issues like what their work means to the world at large and what their need to connect to each other demands of an audience.
Near the end of the piece, there is a late-in-the-game attempt to enact risk in a physical way. Here, the Rude Mechs show their skill in timing and trust. A few audible gasps escape from the audience. However the conceptual link between this section and the rest of the piece is tenuous at best. It recalls the YouTube sensation of OK Go’s treadmill dance, and might be better suited for that medium. But here you do get a glimpse of who they are as actors, a group in physical synch capable of performing with the rhythm of a ticking clock. This level can only be achieved after years of working together. So why aren’t they taking more conceptual risks? Attempting to convey something to their audience about the world beyond the rehearsal room?
I will continue to see the Rude Mechanicals, because I am hopeful that they will finally wield the powers in their possession to compose a theatrical experience that takes real risks in the name of invention.