The theater critic isn’t always a popular person, and we have been called a few names in our day. But never—at least to our faces—have we been dubbed “you savages, you rednecks, you hatchet men, you subhumans, you fiends, you beasts in human shape, you killer pigs.” And what did we do to earn this opprobrium? Why, we merely attended an evening performance of the Flea Theater’s revival of Peter Handke’s 1966 play Offending the Audience.
When the piece debuted, Handke’s provocation may well have been controversial, even offensive. The script gleefully tears down the fourth wall, narrowing the gap between audience and performer. It also takes the theater—which the cast insists on pronouncing “thee-ah-terrr”—as its subject. “This is no play,” the actors say.
“We show you nothing. . . . We don’t tell
you a story. We don’t perform any actions.
We don’t simulate any actions. We don’t
represent anything.” And then there are
all the insults.
The 20-odd young performers, members of the Flea’s resident theater company, the Bats, are an attractive, black-clad lot. Taking turns, they recite the material with some force, but their forays into the audience to confront individual viewers inspire more giggling than affront. These kids seem much too nice-looking to really mean us or the conventional theater any harm. Even when they call us “cookie pushers.”