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stage dive

Stage Dive: Three to See This Weekend

Richard Thomas (far left) and the cast of Timon of Athens.

In my usual end-of-week wrap-up of Off Broadway fare, I offer a trio of worthy contenders for your viewing pleasure. One of them is closing on Sunday, so chop, chop, people.

Beautiful Burnout
A detachment of Black Watch (choreographer Steven Hoggett and performers Ryan Fletcher and Henry Pettigrew of Scotland’s gifted Frantic Assembly theater company) is back with another hypnotic, dance-driven tale of pugilists in pitched battle with themselves. This time it’s a group of small-time Glaswegian boxers, led by trainer Bobby Burgess (Ewan Stewart), a drill sergeant from the I-Am-God school of athletic leadership. He’s got a promising pupil in Cameron Burns (Fletcher, honest, unvarnished, unguarded, startlingly present), but is the kid ready for a match-up with flashy champ Ajay Chopra (Taqi Nazeer), a natural banished from Burgess’s tutelage after a racially tinged battle of wills? That showdown is not the point of the story, however; the sinew-straining, ceaselessly battling ensemble is its own kinetic narrative. Bryony Lavery’s shiv-slim story functions as more of a delivery mechanism for Frantic’s astonishingly athletic interpretative style: More or less front to back, the show is a flawlessly choreographed flow of fight dancing, flash-cut with film-appropriated (yet totally theater-appropriate) visual dynamics, all set to thumping, ear-blasting techno. Every boxing cliche is deployed, batted about, and battered into submission: Sure, the finale makes use of one of the two-to-three scenarios generally available to boxing stories, but it does so with new tooth-rattling resonances; Beautiful has deep affection for its characters (and deep ambivalence about the Sweet Science) but it never gets soupy or sentimental. There simply isn’t time. These are lives ennobled by motion — right up to the heart-stopping moment when motion ceases — or, more accurate, is ceased, forcibly. Just watching these bodies in motion is good for a few hundred Weight Watchers points: Beautiful Burnout is not a relaxing night at the theater, but who wants that, anyway?

Beautiful Burnout is playing at St. Ann’s through March 27.

The Method Gun
So-called “Method” acting, while still practiced, occupies the same dusty historical pigeonhole as Freudian analysis and fedoras: It’s a parody-ready vestige of yesteryear, a leftover from the Age of Big Theory — remember when “ideas,” not Facebook groups, PACs, or Shared Interests, actually brought people together? Ha! But the Rude Mechs, that plucky, leaderless democra-drama conclave from Austin, Texas, have devised a remarkable, beyond-meta show that pokes fun at Strasbergian demagoguery and Guffmanesque overreach, while never falling into easy contempt. Quite the opposite, in fact: The Method Gun — an elaborately layered theatrical mockumentary built on an entirely invented acting technique, “The Approach,” and its originator, the fictional (and unseen) Stella Burden — is, under all of its inspired chicanery, a deeply personal, practically emo piece of work. The five-person troupe, ostensibly playing themselves, lay out the story in “reenactments,” acting exercises, song and dance: We learn how Burden abandoned her actors nine years into a near-decade-long rehearsal process for their masterpiece, a production of A Streetcar Named Desire that excises Blanche, Stanley, Stella, and Mitch (the show begins with a prayer asking God to “shit Tennessee Williams’ ghost” into the theater), and how the fractious group tried to hold itself together in the absence of spiritual and philosophical leadership. The play is a motley creation itself, with hairpin tone shifts and a variety of tricks, some cheaper than others (nudity and balloons have never been combined with more dreamy inventiveness); throughout, the company interrogates concepts of leadership and followership, theory and practice, community and culthood. Deep into the show, we begin to suspect the whole thing is a device of self-referential theatrical onanism, but the troupe pulls off a coup that earns, contextualizes, and lights aflame everything they’ve set in place throughout the night. The Method Gun is a fiendish piece of post-ideological work. And like any great piece of theater — or theory — it lies shamelessly to tell the truth.

The Method Gun plays at Dance Theater Workshop March 4, 5, 8–11 at 7:30 p.m. and March 5 and 11 at 10:30pm

Timon of Athens
Shakespeare could never wrap his mind around money: Interest-earning, interest-bearing wealth was the exotic financial instrument of his day, and, in his plays, he regards it with the kind of horrified awe we reserve today for derivatives and CDOs: What is this strange social mutagen capable of fudging reality itself? What gives it its power? What gives it the right? Director Barry Edelstein channels modern fiscal discontent in his angry, elbow-throwing little mount of Timon of Athens, the Bard’s broken screed against moneychangers, bloodsuckers, and mealy-mouthed hangers-on. (It’s really a play-fragment, more of a Shakespearean blog rant, and probably co-authored with the considerably more cynical Thomas Middleton.) Richard Thomas plays Timon, the overmunificent Athenian pasha turned bitter misanthrope when the cash runs out and his fair-weather friends abandon him to his penury. But poverty is the best thing that happens to Timon (and Thomas), at least in terms of character development: The play’s latter half — where Timon wanders Lear-like in the wilderness, dispossessed and half-mad, and stumbles on a trove of gold he uses not to pay his debts, but to sow anarchy — furnishes him with his best moments of witch-wigged fury. Timon is a tricky part: As a wealthy spendthrift, Thomas defines him entirely by a need to be loved, yet nothing really sticks to his cipherish surface; as a fist-shaking pauper, he’s essentially a vengeful ghost. There’s not much in between those poles, and Thomas contents himself with playing the big notes at full blast — don’t look for much nuance here. But nuance isn’t this play’s strongest suit; what there is of it is furnished by the mopey imp Max Casella’s ascetic skeptic Apemantus (a character Edelstein has wisely merged with the Fool role) and Mark Nelson’s Flavius, Timon’s loyal servant. Under it all buzzes the bituminous voice of Reg E. Cathey (The Wire), playing the show’s wild card, the proud, insulted military commander Alcibiades. Just hearing Cathey shake the rafters is worth your dirty coin, Athenian.

Timon of Athens is playing at the Public Theater through Sunday March 6.

Photo: Joan Marcus