Antonin Artaud, one of theater’s most loopy and influential theorists, believed that actors should aspire to “an affective athleticism”—that they should become champions of sentiment, superjocks of the soul. Acting and athletics both require copious training, as illustrated in two current plays: the National Theatre of Scotland and Frantic Assembly’s Beautiful Burnout at St. Ann’s Warehouse and Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun at Dance Theater Workshop.
Months before rehearsals began for Beautiful Burnout, a piece about Glasgow boxers with a flyweight script by Bryony Lavery, its actors were dispatched to gyms to learn to fight. That experience has shaped their musculature, their movement, and the visceral bouts. It’s thrilling to see fighting sequences executed so exactly, to feel a flutter in the stomach because the hooks and uppercuts look so convincing.
Yet the piece’s story seems an after-thought, a scant through-line from which co-directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett can hang their fine choreography. The plot concerns five Glasgow youths who train together at Bobby Burgess’s gym: bookish Ainsley (Henry Pettigrew), cocky Ajay (Taqi Nazeer), spiky Dina (Vicki Manderson), reckless Neil (Eddie Kay), and newcomer Cameron (Brian Fletcher).
In the space of just a few minutes—all to the tune of Underworld’s shuddering electronic anthems—the quintet undergo four years of sweaty instruction. Three of the youths then turn professional, anticipating real risks and real rewards. Cameron declares he’ll soon be “a fuckin’ champion and fuckin’ famous with a fistful of fuckin’ money.”
When tragedy arrives, it ought to devastate, but Hoggett and Graham’s exhilarating staging (rotating set, slow-motion sequences, violent dance) can’t compensate for Lavery’s distance from the fighters. Indeed, she seems most attuned to Carlotta (Blythe Duff), Cameron’s mother, ambivalent about the sport, and Dina, who abandons it. As we’ve come to know the other characters so slenderly, the final punch never connects.
The characters in The Method Gun, by Austin’s Rude Mechs company, aren’t nearly so sculpted, yet they’ve trained even longer and harder than Burnout‘s boxers. The conceit of Kirk Lynn’s script is that for nine years in the ’60s and ’70s—before and after the departure of their mysterious guru, Stella Burden—these thesps have rehearsed a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which elides Blanche, Stanley, Stella, and Mitch.
Burden’s methods—known as The Approach—are less rigorous than Bobby Burgess’s: “To kiss strangers who look good to us. To laugh louder than most people can yell. And to use real beer in every rehearsal, no matter how early or what brand.” Yet there’s risk here, too. The actors keep a loaded pistol in the rehearsal room, and—as Chekhov fans know—it must eventually fire.
The Method Gun piles on the theatricality, staging a play within a play within a play, etc. It’s clever and funny and the actors are immensely likeable, but the production sometimes has a remote, hermetic feeling, as if created more for the corps than for any audience—a private goof made public. When the two male actors caper onstage, helium balloons attached to their penises, you must wonder if there’s much method in this madness at all.