The lights stay up. A black curtain is drawn aside, revealing a row of twenty-one actors, known as the Bats, the Flea Theater's resident company, sitting on a bench. Aside from the actors, the stage is bare. The play, or rather, performance, or perhaps even better, lecture, is the Peter Handke's Offending the Audience. The premise is simple: tonight there will be no play, in the sense that there will be no representation or imitation attempted by the actors. Offending the Audience turns the tables on its audience, attempting to bring attention to them instead of its performers. Written in 1966, Offending the Audience is an avant-garde piece. However, over forty-two years later, it has lost some of its bite. While different from most plays in its structure (and the fact that it is NOT a play), the premise is no longer challenging or exciting for theater-goers. The main draw of the evening is revealed in the synopsis of the play. Expectations are shifted for this play, as the audience is alerted in advance to the difference between this play and others. Instead of being shocking and new, Offending the Audience is a relic, a historical document depicting the attempts made to revitalize or shock theater in the past.
“You represent something. You are someone. You are something. You are not someone here but something.” The group of actors repeat this sentiment to the audience, making eye contact with some members. They want us to know that this evening, the spectators have become the representation, not they the actors. They are actors who refuse to act, yet at the same time of their refusal, remain actors acting.
Offending the Audience is a scripted work, so matter how many times the performers insist that “no action that has occurred elsewhere is re-enacted here,” they are in fact re-enacting the text. Their words are not original to themselves, they have been given the sentences and phrases to speak, their movements have been directed and rehearsed. Jim Simpson, the director, has done a fine job of orchestrating the cast's movements. Clad all in black, they pop up and down from the long black bench, swarming the audience at times. The black suggests that the audience is to see the actors as they are, and to see the stage as merely a stage. Yet, as long as a text remains on the stage, as long as simple costuming and even the most simple set design remain, representation remains.
No longer shocking, Offending the Audience could be considered a classic. Audiences are no longer surprised by Waiting for Godot or A Doll's House ; why should we expect to be surprised by Handke's piece? If the piece remains standing, able to attract, educate, and entertain an audience after a period of time, then it has done its job as a work of theater. Offending the Audience provides an hour-long crash course in theater theory, from Aristotle to Artaud, that questions the why of theater. It seems appropriate that the piece is performed by the Bats. While it may not be the best piece to showcase one's acting skills, it provides an opportunity to play with what once was the avant-garde. The piece cannot be looked at as “offensive” any longer, but rather as what it is—a piece that once shocked and awed but now instructs. In an age where theater is considered dead or dying by many, it is nice to remember a time when artists wanted to challenge their audiences.