Liminal Wants You to Feel Weird (and You Will)
The Art of the Insult in Offending the Audience
Portland Mercury, November 21, 2015
THEATER GROUP Liminal tries things you won't see at any other performance in Portland: At their latest performance, Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience), you're told to keep your cell phones on. Bring your dog. Screaming is encouraged. It's meant to make you feel uncomfortable through the source of all discomfort—self-consciousness.
You know you're in for a unique experience the minute you walk into the theater and you're greeted by people wearing police uniforms who check your coat and give you a nametag; at the bar, they're serving vodka in styrofoam cups for $2. The bartender barks at you, "What do you want?" and makes snarky comments—which is somehow endearing (as someone who works in the service industry and is required to be achingly polite, I live vicariously through these assholes).
When you walk into the performance space, you're confronted by rows of chairs labeled "RESERVED." These serve as the stage, and you take a seat among other shittier chairs just a few feet in front of them, which are strewn so haphazardly you have to climb over them. When the play starts, you're told to text a number, and those texts are projected in real time on a wall, beginning a fun live audience commentary on the play. Also, you are surveyed for the majority of the performance with multiple cameras trained on you, sometimes with a body camera on your person.
Needless to say, Offending the Audience is about the experience of going to a show—your expectations of the play and your preparations before and after. But this is not so much a play as an event, and you're it. If you studied theater in college, you might recognize the Brechtian spirit at work: The performance is an adaptation of a 1966 piece of anti-theater by Austrian writer Peter Handke.
Liminal has been around since the '90s, and their productions tend toward irony and dark comedy. They sometimes walk the line of pretension, but they always have a sense of humor and self-awareness, which lends palatability. Offending the Audience could be shorter—you get the idea after an hour, at which point you start to feel bludgeoned by it, although, in this case, that could just be another aspect of feeling uncomfortable! Either way, the art of the insult doesn't get enough play in this city, and this production does a great job of it.