It was easy to see why local theatre innovator Jaybird O’Berski had for years been so keen to get the Austin, Texas, theatre troupe The Rude Mechanicals, or Rude Mechs, to Durham. In their play within a play within a philosophical disquisition, Now Now Oh Now, presented by Duke Performances in Shaefer Lab Theater through Sept. 27, the half-dozen actors put on a show that shows and tells the importance of plays and playing in the great game of life. In this very smart work’s third and final section, they engage the audience in a meditation on choice and chance and make a crystalline argument for beauty’s crucial role in natural selection.

The entire production is also a demonstration of the real intimacy of live theatre, especially at this scale. Only 30 audience members may enter the play space for each presentation – and the full run is sold out.

The games begin with the exchange of one’s ticket for a “talisman.” One chooses among six (or fewer if one is not among the first choosers) symbols representing “clans,” so that from the very beginning one is forced into awareness of the interplay between autonomous individual action and chance, which includes the actions of others. I chose the Leaf Clan, thereby choosing to ally with others with a proclivity for leafiness – but I couldn’t control who those others were, so they represented chance. The balance of nature is preserved by the limited number of each type of talisman – no one group can easily dominate.

After being led along a circuitous, candle-lit route through the labyrinthine passages of the Bryan Center, collecting oddly-dressed actors along the way, the clans emerge into the enclosed sacred circle of theater, rich in mystic markings and significant objects. Bizarre action begins, with speeches half-intelligible, larded with unknown words. The actors speak their stage directions prior to their speeches proper, and this in combination with their medievalesque/game nerd clothing has the remarkable effect of releasing one from the tethers of “now” and “real.” It soon becomes clear that we are witnessing a complex game of world-making, complete with a quest to vanquish enemies. The game breaks when it takes a turn unbearable to one of the players, at which point, the Clans, at the urging of the Game Master, take up the quest, searching for the clues that will reveal the path to Light.

I found this section the least interesting and somewhat juvenile, but certainly can understand its appeal to the hordes of gamers and questers. I got a little bored with the scavenger hunt and the decoding of messages in invented symbols, then perversely felt quite let down when we were guided out of the room. But we were not taken to the exit, but instead – through more labyrinthine passages – to another room for the real meal of the show.

Seated at a long banquet table laid with place settings of power objects (stone, leaves, feather, mirror, water, magnifier), the audience turned to listen to a speaker – the very woman the imminent demise of whose character had destroyed the earlier game. She speaks long and eloquently, with the aid of some amazing dioramas, on beauty and the idea of aesthetic selection; on the choices and chances that had brought these 30 people to the table at that moment. She spoke of the very things I spend my life considering, so as far as I was concerned, she was preaching to the choir. Other faces at the table revealed the revelatory nature of her message, but for me, the epiphany was that this is how religion must be for believers in their sanctuaries – a place and company where all their deepest ideas of truth are validated, and no one is a poor wayfaring stranger. By choice and by chance, I had gone out on a dark and stormy night, followed the clues, and found a gathering of the Choose Beauty Clan. What a game, this artful life!

Through September 27 Sold out. See sidebar for details.