Like so much counter culture from the 1960s, Peter Handke’s “Offending the Audience” used to be rebellious, but now it’s just quaint. There’s historical interest in seeing the play produced 42 years after it was written, but there’s nothing that gives offense, or even surprise. Most modern auds will have heard these ideas before.
Which means the Flea Theater’s production sounds like old news. When the black curtain bisecting the 40-seat space is whipped back, revealing 21 black-clad actors staring at us from a long bench, it’s clear we’re getting one of those shows that “implicates” us.
That’s also why the house lights stay up for the entire 70 minutes and the actors occasionally sit next to us in the aisles. Since we’re in the theater, we’re inevitably performing. This event we’re sharing with the cast has created a temporary new world that hovers between reality and fiction.
There’s no question that’s the point, since Handke keeps repeating it. The play is just a series of blunt proclamations, divided among the ensemble. “You represent something,” they say. “You are a theater society of sorts.”
Conversely, the cast insists that the lights and the walls “represent nothing,” that we are all just existing together in a room. But that’s a ploy to make us realize if you put the right frame around it, anything can represent something. The second you say the lights have no meaning, they seem more meaningful.
For the thoughtless crowd of pearl-wearing theatergoers Handke assumed he was offending, these tactics might have been a surprise. Now, however, you can’t surf past a Facebook page without noticing that life is a floor show, and we are all its stars.
Though he can’t offer revelations, director Jim Simpson at least provides elegance. The actors are beautifully scored, moving from their upstage bench in groups of three or four, letting the start of a speech propel them forward. Their bodies form constellations, holding positions for a sentence or two, then retreating to let the next group hit their marks.
The effect is engrossing, particularly when the thesps — all from the Flea’s resident acting troupe, the Bats — modulate their voices with similar control. In one section, the volume drops and the pace slows, and we’re told to focus on each breath we take. The argument — that theater changes our perception of everyday activities — is rudimentary, but it’s persuasive.
Near the conclusion, though, when the actors hurl epithets at us, Simpson resorts to cheap tactics. He lets the cast over-emote and use coarse insults that are not in the script, which is like admitting the play can’t reach us on its own terms.
But even that segment has charm, since the young thesps all seem so excited to be jumping around. Instead of offended, they could easily leave an audience bemused.