What do you get when you take a cult of avant-garde theater artists, take away their guru and leave them with a case of beer, a bottle of Jack, a loaded gun and a hungry tiger?
This documentary theater piece, a collage of reenactments, speculation, humor and commentary, explores the legacy of theater artist Stella Burden, who in the 1970’s, founded “The Approach,” an acting method emphasizing sexuality, danger, and the following of spur of the moment emotional impulses. Like surprisingly many hard-core methods of theatrical training, “The Approach” involved a purported breaking down and rebuilding of an actor’s personality, in this case with the hopes of “becoming worthy” of applause and accolades.
It seems Burden was rehearsing a production of Tennessee Williams’ A Street Car Named Desire, excluding the characters of Stella, Stanley, Mitch and Blanche (its principles) when she suddenly fled to South America without warning. The cast she left behind, who worshiped her as a guru and prophetess of the art of the future, chose to resume rehearsing the production for 9 years, after which they mounted a single shocking performance.
The material is rich in humor and pathos, and the troupe attacks it from several useful angles. They explain the back-story plainly, with no expositional pretense. They keep the audience engaged with a level of audience participation that never feels invasive or makes you afraid to be publicly embarrassed. They are fearless in experimenting with the methods they hold up for examination (and more often than not, ridicule).
One drawback to their approach to “the approach,” is that they so thoroughly and constantly remind you that this is all pretend, that they are actors, playing actors, playing characters, that everything is artificial and under control, that they often remove the possibility of becoming emotionally attached, even as they tell a story which is in many ways tragic.
This, no doubt, is intentional; part of what they are exploring is the feeling of examining human emotion from the almost scientific vantage point of trying to imitate it to the point where it ceases to have meaning. It’s creepy, and it’s interesting, but on the other hand, from an audience perspective, emotional distance is emotional distance.
That being said, this play avoids the trap of its subjects by never taking itself too seriously, and, while it seems to be laughing more at them than with them, it feels more awed than smug. If the play is more intellectually engaging than emotionally so, its questions are well demanded and worth chewing over: for example, is performance art an imitation of, an invitation to, or an escape from a fully lived life?
Also, you’re going to love the tiger.
The Method Gun plays through ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Center Black Box through October 16.
Check Out Blast’s recent interview with company members Shawn Sides and Lana Lesley.