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'Brothers Karamazov' Inspires Experimental, Far-Reaching 'Field Guide' At Yale Rep

The members of Rude Mechs are far from rude. (The name comes from the company of tradesman actors in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”) The shows developed by this exciting experimental performance troupe can indeed be provocative and confounding. But they don’t seem to mind explaining them.

The group’s latest endeavor — “Field Guide,” at the Yale Repertory Theatre Jan. 26 through Feb. 17 — involves pop psychology, Russian literature and stand-up comedy stylings.

This is the acclaimed Austin, Texas-based experimental theater troupe’s third visit to New Haven. They presented “The Method Gun” for a weekend in 2011 (as part of the Rep’s “No Boundaries” series) and a week’s worth of performances of “Now Now Oh Now” at the Yale University Theatre in 2014.

Not only is “Field Guide” having its premiere at the Yale Rep, it gets a full monthlong run as part of the Rep’s 2017-18 mainstage season.

The cast consists of six Rude Mechs regulars. The full troupe runs to dozens of members, some more active than others, plus numerous guest collaborators. This time, the collaborator is the Yale Repertory Theatre, which commissioned “Field Guide.”

Over breakfast at the Heirloom restaurant, a block away from the Yale Rep in downtown New Haven, three key members of Rude Mechs divulged what they’ve been up to.

The title “Field Guide” comes for “Field Guide to Living,” says Thomas Graves, one of the company’s co-producing artistic directors. “We were looking to do something about life coaching, self-help. A very, very early idea for the show was that each of us adopt a different ideology.”

“We were going to crowdsource that, have other people plan our days,” adds Lana Lesley, another of Rude Mechs’ five co-producing artistic directors. “We didn’t do that.”

Instead, Russian literature entered the equation.

Company member Hannah Kenah, who’s actively involved with creating the script for “Field Guide,” says “there was this floating-around idea that everything you need to know in life comes from ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.”

“Often we have a work we build on,” Graves says. For “The Method Gun,” “Uncle Vanya” was the skeleton.” Kenah notes that the role-playing game-themed “Now Now Oh Now” originally contained an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” as one of its components, “…but with gaming layered on top of it.” The Pynchon portion was later let go.

“We don’t have a process for how our shows come together,” Lesley says, “but we do have techniques, desires and wishes. We didn’t come to a solid agreement that this would be an adaptation of ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ or about a certain type of self-improvement program. At a certain point we ask ourselves ‘What is this play about?’ In that struggle is where the play comes from.”

“We keep throwing ideas around until we get enough heat around something,” Graves agrees.

Specifically when dealing with the Dostoevsky novel, Kenah says “we wanted ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ to be one of many layers, but it kept being too primary. We didn’t care about the plot. We’re trying to make a show so you don’t have to have read “The Brothers Karamazov,” but if you have you’ll get something extra out of it.

“Our conversations,” Kenah continues, “would descend into concepts of success and failure. That led me down this path of writing stand-up comedy material, which I had never done. I was investigating different performative styles.”

It’s natural for Rude Mechs to insert comedy into darker material. As Lesley puts it, “the deep intellectual unpacking of ideas is important to us, but we also like taking the piss out of things.”

“We like walking both lines,” Kenah says. “Which is what ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ does too. Dark and light.”

Though the Rep production is the show’s official premiere, Rude Mechs was able to do a few performances of a working version of the show in their native Austin. “It’s a practice we started back in 2007,” Lesley says. “Instead of doing a reading, we like to get the work up on its feet ourselves first.

Last year, Rude Mechs lost the performance space they’d had in Austin since 1999. “The University of Texas bought it,” Lesley says, “and tripled our rent. The space was special not just as the workspace for new Rude Mechs projects. The company had turned it into a live community performance space.

The lack of a permanent home, however, hasn’t led to more touring. “It’s the opposite,” Lesley says. “We purposely got off the touring junket, so we could build support in our own community. We did an event every month during the 2015-16 season, raising awareness.”

At this point, it’s unclear whether “Field Guide” will be seen elsewhere after its Yale Rep run this month. Certainly the work has had a different feel, being created at Yale.

“Each of us has their own understudy from the Yale School of Drama,” Kenah says. “The costume designer is a Yale grad student, not someone from our company.”

“The school is trying is to cross-pollinate with us as much as possible,” Lesley says. “For them it’s unusual. We’re still making large choices, at a point where Yale shows would be set. Hannah is writing her face off, sending them new pages every day.”

Working at Yale may create collaborative challenges, but working at the university has also been inspirational. “’Now Now Oh Now’ became what it was,” Kenah says, because of a scientist we met when we were here with ‘The Method Gun.’” Some graduate students in the Yale Biology department, she relates, attended a performance of “The Method Gun” and invited Rude Mechs to visit the university’s ornithology lab. The company had been looking for a “lecture” element for “Now Now Oh Now” and found the style they were seeking when they met evolutionary ornithologist Prof. Richard O. Prum.

Rude Mechs is already at work on a couple of other pieces, including “Not Every Mountain” that will premiere in July at the Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota. “Not Every Mountain” is part of a larger project called “Perverse Results,” which is an opportunity for the company to develop more shortform works.“We have times in rehearsal where we don’t get around to an idea,” Graves says. “A lot of ideas get thrown out, not because they’re bad ideas but because they just don’t fit in that particular piece.”

FIELD GUIDE, created by Rude Mechs, is performed Jan. 26 through Feb. 17 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., with an added preview performance Jan. 29 at 8 p.m. There is no 2 p.m. performance on Jan 27. Tickets are $44 to $90. 203-432-1234 and yalerep.org.

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