Named after the group of laborers that mounts plays in the woods in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, this Austin-based collective launched in 1995 after its members, then undergrads at the University of Texas, studied the Bard in barns. It was all part of a summer retreat called Shakespeare at Winedale. In this communal setting, surrounded by the bucolic splendor of the Texas countryside, they lived and breathed Shakespeare for more than two months, putting on directorless plays in which the students shared responsibilities for everything.
"You'd make your costume and you'd do the lights, and then you'd act in one scene and then run upstairs to do the lights for the next person," recalls Shawn Sides, coproducing artistic director at Rude Mechanicals. "One of the things we loved about that -- and it had its problems, for sure -- is the ability to touch everything and not get siloed into one role in the production."
"We do butt heads, but we grew our aesthetic up together, so we agree a lot more than we disagree," she says. "If somebody likes a monologue and somebody else doesn't, we all deeply know that both people are right. We need to tinker with the problem to figure it out. Ultimately, if we can't find consensus, it becomes a matter of, 'OK, who got their way last?'"
Certainly, the Rude Mechs need all hands on deck at all times because they create everything they produce, from script to stage. Their work is often predicated on the clever clashing of disparate themes and ideas. Sides describes their aesthetic as "a bridge between classic American drama and experimental theater." As their website puts it: "Since 1995, Rude Mechs has created a mercurial slate of original theatrical productions that represent a genre-defying cocktail of big ideas, cheap laughs, and dizzying spectacle."
Their closest correlative in South Florida theater may be Mad Cat, which shares Rude Mechs' collage-style approach to stagecraft. Actors sometimes break character and then return; they're often placed under physical duress in their shows, such as dodging swinging pendulums. They've even had to dust off seemingly impromptu dance moves. I've Never Been So Happy, their offbeat take on a Western musical, included copious audience interaction in the form of a themed carnival, where attendees moved between stations, dressing in Western drag, sipping margaritas, learning how to make rope, and eating fried food in the shape of famous Texans.
Now Now Oh Now, which tours the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse for the next two weekends, is a great introduction to the collective's nonlinear pastiches. The play is a brainy triptych set in a geek's nirvana: One part follows a group of live-action role players engaged in a self-invented game. Another finds the same actors locked in a room and forced to solve adventure puzzles in the vein of the videogame Myst. The third part -- which requires the audience to move to another space -- is set around a large conference table surrounded by dioramas, where an evolutionary biologist lectures on the topic of pleasure-seeking in evolution. The Brontë sisters and a murder mystery find their way into this theatrical blender too.
"We tried a lot of different things, and... certain elements kept being interesting to us, like the LARPing and the puzzles," says Hannah Kenah, who wrote Now Now Oh Now and also acts in the ensemble. "We were trying different versions of how to put them in a scene onstage."
The play's third act developed by chance, when the Rude Mechs met an evolutionary biology grad student while on tour at Yale. They visited his ornithology lab and were struck by his research into beauty in evolution. "The evolutionary biology was the thing that came from left field but ended up having thematic ideas that allowed us to tie all of these elements together in very disparate ways," Kenah says.
Now Now Oh Now also requires audience interaction, including some puzzle-solving. Whether it likes it or not, the audience of Now Now Oh Now -- which is limited to 30 ticket-buyers per performance -- will become intimately involved in the play.
"There's very little improv in the show, but it's set up to be dependent on the audience members, and there are certain times when they take a more primary role," Kenah says.
However the audience affects the results, Sides hopes participants leave the theater pondering big questions about choice and evolution, chance and randomness. "I hope people think about the precariousness of their lives and the lives of those around them... and are a little more awake to the world and to the present moment and how precious it is."
Now Now Oh Now runs Friday, February 20, through March 1 at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami; 866-811-4111. Tickets cost $10 to $25.
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