Offending the Audience

Fictitious Theatre Company, Second Stage at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., through Oct. 11, 563-4330

Be warned: I am about to give away the one and only surprise of the evening, which occurs the second the play begins.

The Austrian playwright Peter Handke's 1966 play Offending the Audience isn't a play. The actors do not play characters. The stage does not represent some other place. The time of the action does not unfold as though it were some fictional time. Time passes as it passes in real life for the audience. There is no illusion. There is no play.

How do we know this? The actors tell us. When the curtain parts, four actors come out, the house lights come up, the actors stare at us and they tell us that this is not a play, that the stage does not represent some other place, that the time of the action does not unfold as though it were some fictional time, that time passes as it passes in real life for the audience, that there is no illusion, that there is no play.

Handke's play (or whatever it is) is an hour-long polemical lecture about the theater, taking place in a theater, that tries to be as unlike theater as it possibly can be. We are asked to abandon every expectation, to be the subject of the actors' gaze the way that they are usually the subject of ours. There is nothing offensive in what is represented on the stage; the offense of the title is that nothing at all is represented.

To her credit, director Rosemary L'Erario keeps her four actors moving around, creating more variety and visual interest than Handke probably wanted. And the four actors (Fleur Frascella, Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Doug Thomas and Neil Wax) deliver their hour-long polemical lecture with charm and elan - again, perhaps more than Handke wanted.

If you have spent a lot of your time thinking a lot about the theater, you will find the subject of this lecture quite fascinating. I must confess that I've always wanted to see this play. It lacks the sheer theatrical brilliance of some of Handke's other experimental plays of the '60s: it's not a clown show about language and identity like Kaspar, or a game about theatrical meaning like The Ride Across Lake Constance. But I always imagined that the piece would be sustained by the sheer brilliance of its polemic.

Well, now I've seen it. I'm glad I have. And I was wrong.

-Cary M. Mazer