Offending the Audience
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
February 1, 2008
This is not a review. It is not a critique. There will be no fluffy phrases about the actors' range and/or transformations. You will find no mention of the director's vision. You will not read a summary of the plot. There will be no light shed on the author's intentions...
Ok, ok I think you get the idea. You will see these things. I just wanted you to understand how adamant the playwright and the cast of Offending the Audience are about the fact that you will not see a play or anything theatrical at all. But is that really possible? Well, in this production, yes and no.
The show opens with 20+ actors going round and round about what we are not going to see. Eventually they admit that they are rambling and contradicting themselves and that we, the audience, should get it (and we do). They finally move on to another subject...us. We are, as they point out, the subject of the play. Our objective is to come to the theatre and watch a play and to that end we got off our butts and showed up in this brightly lit basement to share in this experience. But what is this experience? It's not a story. It's not even a bit or routine because, as they remind us, there is no situation. But in this "no situation" there is inherently a situation. Slowly but surely playwright Peter Handke reveals that to us.
At first I was annoyed by tiresome repetition in the script and I thought it couldn't go anywhere, but it does go somewhere and it's even thought-provoking to some extent. Handke's script is extremely clever (and often funny) in that it sets up nothing to reveal something. He sarcastically proves that his play is classical in that it conforms to Aristotle's Three Unities. He shows us that we are the subject and the action of the play. He admits that his play is a dialectical argument and even points out the trouble with accepting contradiction in dialectics, but that contradiction is what creates the unique form he seeks.
Still, for being so anti-theatrical, it feels theatrical. I think part of that feeling has to do with having such a large cast. There are so many faces to watch and that makes for a show in and of itself, like people-watching on the subway. Individual lines are somewhat evenly distributed among the actors and they stand up and approach us in what certainly appears to be blocked movement. As they were listing all the theatrical conventions that we would not see, I began to think about what I was seeing. There is blocking. There's a script. There is even acting to the extent that the players affect their voices and deliver lines with conviction. In fact, there is so much conviction that at times I felt like I was sitting in a jury box and I had 20 lawyers barking their closing arguments at me.
In essence, the play is not offending the audience—it is more like an assault on the audience. The segment that is supposed to be them offending us is just a stream of corny insults. We are warned that we are about to be insulted and that sort of takes the bite out of it.
The cast, collectively known as The Bats, does a fine job with the script. I enjoyed many of their individual performances and when I say performances I mean subtle facial expressions, gestures, and line deliveries for there's not much to go on beyond that. I enjoyed Jim Simpson's direction, well at least what I could identify as direction. I loved the ending, for example. It truly gives us the most uncomfortable feeling of the whole show and I loved it.
This show is surprisingly entertaining for being so conceptual. So if you generally shy away from arty, experimental theatre give this one a look. I think you may share in my surprise.