• Alan Simons

The premise of The Method Gun is so convoluted and navel-gazing that it creates the understandable impression that the production itself will be those things. On paper, it sounds like an indulgent exercise in theater people justifying their own questionable life choices.

In fact, The Method Gun is anything but: The show, from the Austin-based experimental theater company Rude Mechs, is focused, funny, and breathtakingly surprising.

As the show begins, houselights are up in the Imago Theater, and the stage is wide open and covered in tape, as though the actors haven't yet memorized their marks. Everything about the staging screams "no fourth wall here, folks," an impression that's solidifed when a cast member greets the audience and introduces the show, explaining that convoluted premise: Several years ago, she says, the Rude Mechs became interested in the work of legendary acting guru Stella Burden, and particularly in Burden's disciples, a tight-knit crew of five who stayed together even after Burden's mysterious disappearance, working on a production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire—a production, however, in which the four main characters were omitted. The rehearsal process took nine years, as the company struggled to fully embody Burden's approach to acting. The Rude Mechs toggle between portraying themselves, recounting backstory and presenting archival material, and playing themselves re-enacting the work of Burden's original troupe, including some hilarious acting exercises (they practice both crying and kissing) and rehearsals for Streetcar. These rehearsals are surprisingly moving, with shades of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—bit characters claiming the spotlight, lines stripped of their context, absurd and a little bit hopeless.

In an audition tape from one of Burden's troupe members—which involves a dude crawling under a chair and ranting about his own insignificance—the actor poses a question that is near the heart of this show: "How does one become oneself?" Is it with the help of a guru or another person; by submerging oneself in a group or a project; by taking the stage in the role of someone else? And where does the audience fit in to all of this?

When Streetcar is finally performed, near the end of The Method Gun, it is both immaculately choreographed and a little bit dangerous—a device I won't ruin here. The artificiality and theatricality of the production have been fully revealed—and, quite literally, circumscribe the action—but this in no way diminishes the effect of the scene. It's the very embodiment of Burden's Approach, which one character sums up as "tension and risk, risk and tension." With one elegant device, Rude Mechs demonstrates both the fleeting, powerful allure of a group working together in perfect harmony, and the inevitability of that harmony's dissolution into its individual, asynchronous parts.

The title of The Method Gun provides a few clues to its own puzzles, referencing both Chekhov's gun (a gun is introduced early in the show) and the Lee Stasberg's "Method," i.e. method acting, which was taught to Marlon Brando by a woman named Stella Adler—giving Stella Burden her first name, and explaining, in part, the Streetcar connection. She takes her surname from performance artist Chris Burden, whose work famously involved putting himself in some sort of physical danger (he was shot in the arm during one piece). So: Method acting requires an actor fully inhabit the character he or she is playing, going so far as to create memories and backstory for the character. The reference to Chris Burden introduces an element of danger, the possibility of actors placing themselves at real physical risk. And, of course, Chekhov's gun must go off. Understanding these references helps to clarify what, exactly, the Rude Mechs are up to, as they interrogate the possibility of creating meaningful, transformative theater. But to the show's immense credit, you don't have to pick up a single one of them in order for the show to work on you. The strength of the production rests in its disciplined balance of elements: Humor and pathos, artful choreography and slaptstick, intellectual provocation and simple emotional appeal.

Oh, and did I mention there's a talking tiger?

There's a talking tiger.

The Method Gun, Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th, Sat-Sun 8:30 pm, Mon-Tues 6:30 pm, through Sept 13, $20-25, tickets here