You should probably expect, as an audience member attending a show titled Offending the Audience, that there’s going to be at least a little bit of antagonism between you and the actors. But Jim Simpson’s production of Austrian writer Peter Handke’s 1966 play, now running at The Flea, is more likely to leave you chuckling than indignant. Nevertheless, Simpson’s choice of material and its timing — with previews beginning at the tail-end of this year’s well-curated Under the Radar Festival (UTR) at the Public and a few short months after RoseLee Goldberg’s remarkable PERFORMA 07 — brings up some interesting questions about the directions that new theatre writers are taking in their own efforts to incite both themselves and audiences.
Handke’s play — which received its first production at Princeton, of all places, for a special 1966 meeting of the German literary society, Gruppe 47 — is without plot or dramatis personae. The script, first published in English translation in 1967, lays out some basic rules for the actors and the director, but offers no significant stage directions, save a general emphasis on the fact that the audience should be prevented from getting anything they expect. The script doesn’t even indicate a preference for whether 1 or 100 actors speak the text. Simpson chose to split the script between all 20+ of his Bats — the resident company of young actors at the Flea — who presented what can only be described as a litany.
Simpson’s direction does a lot for a plotless script that is purposely repetitive. He creates movement and tension by mixing and matching the delivery, varying tempo, volume, pairings and groupings of actors. All of this helps build up to a crescendo of insults near the end that lends the piece a structure more similar to a minimalist composition than your usual night of theatre. But what seems to undercut both the script and the direction is the too-familiar image of twenty-something twenty-somethings, all clad in black form-fitting and, in the case of many of the women, form-revealing outfits. It all looks a bit more like an advertisement for a new line of clothing from the Gap than a polemical piece of experimental theatre.
Critics and audiences in 1966 applauded the piece, but confrontational work was something they were already familiar with. The rise of a new breed of absurdist writers in avant-garde circles in Europe through the 50s and 60s, along with the ascendancy of Beckett, Genet, and Weiss, brought cruelty to the fore. And the aggressive and willfully in-your-face work of performance artists like Allan Kaprow, Carolee Schneeman, and Robert Rauschenberg had already taken hold here in New York. Photos of well-heeled audiences sitting cross-legged, hand on face, watching as artists of all stripes doused themselves in blood, rolled in raw meat, made love to live octopuses, dressed as clowns and hurled epithets and other objects in every direction, particularly that of the audience, could be found in every major arts journal. Guy de Bord’s Society of Spectacle and Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage were both to be released in 1967, and the Situationists were soon to unleash their artistic fury on the streets of Europe. Handke’s play was very much of its time, if even a bit late on the scene, as Handke’s real maturity as a writer came some years later.
In our time, we also know about being yelled at and provoked by performers. This was evidenced nowhere better than this year’s UTR and PERFORMA 07. Taking the theater out of context is precisely the name of the game these days — 3 of the 17 UTR shows took place completely outside of a theater, and many of those that took place in a theater involved direct interaction with the audience. While the majority of PERFORMA pieces required the presence of an audience to function. Perhaps the most poignant contemporary follow-up to Handke’s play among this group of shows, was Rotozaza’s Etiquette, in which the only two audience members for the piece are also the actors, receiving direction from recorded soundtrack, speaking lines from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and manipulating props atop a table in a crowded café near Astor Place.
Both Handke and Rotozaza’s pieces call into question the roles involved in the theatre and in life and how they are dictated by language, but Etiquette seems the more successful of the two by immediately invoking and then consistently maintaining the disorientation required for an audience to really begin to question where they are and what they expect. Simpson’s production, and his troupe of lovelies, never really succeeded in surprising us, which is the one thing that’s really key to provocation or offense.