In what I can only assume is a first for Wesleyan theater, the Department’s Spring 2020 faculty production opened this past weekend not in a theater, but over livestream, with the actors scattered across multiple countries and time zones. The play in question, “Method Gun,” was originally developed by Texas-based theater collective the Rude Mechs and centers around an enigmatic figure named Stella Burden. A theater guru known for her unconventional acting techniques (somewhat pretentiously referred to as the Approach), Burden has mysteriously disappeared to South America prior to the start of the show, abandoning her company in the middle of rehearsals for Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Her followers, while devoted, are somewhat directionless in the absence of their beloved leader and are left to finish their production of “Streetcar” (an experimental version of the famous play, in which major characters Blanche, Stella, Stanley, and Mitch are all absent) while grappling with Burden’s disappearance and trying to understand her vision for the play.
“Method Gun” combines scenes from the company’s production of “Streetcar” with scenes of the actors arguing during rehearsal, contemplating their own life trajectories, and practicing Burden’s various training techniques. These techniques include “Crying Practice,” in which the actors sit in silence while willing themselves to shed tears, and “Rasa Boxes,” during which they move between boxes labeled with different emotions and attempt to embody the emotion designated by each box. The end result is a chaotic but lively show that both satirizes the eccentricities of method actors and celebrates their sense of community and commitment.
The Wesleyan production of “Method Gun” involves a number of additions and updates to the original Rude Mechs play, the most obvious of which is that it takes place on YouTube, with the cast performing from their own homes instead of on a stage. This transition to a virtual performance inevitably leads to some logistical issues. Glitches in the livestream occasionally produce the illusion that actors are stalling, or stuttering, or performing out of sync with each other. The subtleties of the characters’ emotions can be difficult to pick up through a somewhat low-resolution YouTube video. And the elaborate choreography of the climactic scene in which Burden’s company performs their adaptation of “Streetcar” (in the original Rude Mechs production, the actors perform this scene while moving to dodge a set of lights swinging across the stage, and in the Wesleyan version the actors were originally intended to perform while dodging a series of bowling balls) obviously cannot be recreated offstage. Nevertheless, the virtual version of the scene, which involves the actors describing the scene in front of solid black backgrounds, is striking in its own right. These issues are obviously not the fault of the cast and crew, all of whom are clearly working incredibly hard to translate the show to a new medium. Still, they can make for a somewhat disjointed viewing experience.
In addition to posing some technical challenges, the virtual nature of “Method Gun” also adds a layer of complexity to an already tangled story line. There are many layers of adaptation and reinterpretation in this show: Burden’s re-envisioning of Williams’ play, the company’s attempts to reproduce Burden’s vision, the Rude Mechs’ recreation of the company’s rehearsals, the Wesleyan Theater Department’s adaptation of the Rude Mechs’ play, and their further adaptations after being forced to produce the play virtually. These layers are what give the show depth and intrigue, but for viewers who lack a baseline familiarity with the plot of “A Streetcar Named Desire” or with the premise of the original Rude Mechs performance, the show may well cross the line from entertainingly disorienting to incomprehensible. Thankfully, the show’s website helps mitigate this somewhat by providing a scene-by-scene summary of “Streetcar” and background information on the Stella Burden Company.)
It should come as no surprise that moving from the stage to the screen (or rather, to several different screens, each displaying exactly one character) leads to a show that feels less immersive and expansive than a traditional play. This is why, back when we were all allowed to leave our houses, theater was primarily an in-person art form. But the cast of “Method Gun” is fully aware of this loss, and against all odds, they manage to make it work in their favor by turning the claustrophobia and disconnectedness of social isolation into another facet of the story. The very real frustration that the actors no doubt feel in response to the constraints of virtual performance melds with their characters’ frustration with each other, themselves, and Burden. The challenges faced by Burden’s company in her absence—the disorienting nature of their performance, the difficulty of forming truthful connections with both castmates and the text, the creeping doubts about whether they are accomplishing anything meaningful—are the same ones facing the cast of “Method Gun” in real life.
No one could have predicted the circumstances under which it would eventually be performed, but “Method Gun” turns out to be a perfect show for quarantine. Despite—or perhaps because of—its disorienting plot and occasional technological difficulties, the play builds from a spirited depiction of the chaos of making art to a poignant meditation on the collective nature of acting, even from hundreds of miles apart. When the actors first demonstrated Burden’s “Crying Practice,” I watched their pixelated faces with detachment, even boredom. By the time they repeated the exercise at the end of the play, I found myself struggling not to tear up alongside them.
Tara Joy can be reached at email@example.com.