Wild Onion Theatre Company

at Cafe Voltaire

Nothing is more risky or less predictable than audience participation. And Wild Onion Theatre Company’s current production, Exhibit A, relies almost entirely on the willingness of its audience to play along. This is both the show’s greatest strength and its most serious drawback.

The premise of Exhibit A is simple. A police officer (Charles R. Bowen Jr.) and a young man (William C. Moore) burst into the room, as if the cop has chased the man in off the street. There’s a brief explosive scuffle, during which the police officer is apparently stabbed in the leg. Once the young man is subdued, the two agree to allow the audience to decide the guilt or innocence of the alleged criminal. But no specific crime is ever mentioned, and the question the audience must decide becomes whether or not the police officer should take the young man outside and “kick his ass.”

The officer, whose name turns out to be Hennessey, starts by asking everyone in the room, “What did you see?” Bowen, a police officer himself, is perfect in this section of the piece, posing a simple question in that terrifyingly familiar policeman’s tone that seems to say, “Tell me what I want to hear.” The details people remember are sketchy–one person saw the young man holding a knife, another didn’t, a third isn’t sure if she did or didn’t.

Hennessey and the young man, Malcolm, then pick attorneys from the audience to plead their cases (unfortunately on opening night picking attorneys was somewhat akin to pulling teeth). Exhibit A then begins in earnest, as the facts are presented and the larger social and cultural issues–racism, police harassment, economic inequality–come into focus.

It’s an exciting and dangerous theatrical experiment. For the most part the actors try not to set the agenda but to follow the leads given them by the audience members–which gives the piece a sense of unpredictability and spontaneity that can be quite powerful.

Clearly what happens depends on the issues the audience wants to pursue. Author Tyrone Finch does seem to take the lead once in a while, giving his characters speeches that focus on some of the larger issues in the play, but these speeches are so full of sweeping generalizations that they fail to carry much weight. The opening-night audience seemed a bit hesitant to join in, making the performance altogether lackluster.

Part of the reason the audience hesitated lies in the piece itself: Wild Onion’s production tries to be too real. In this highly artificial setting–we’re all holding programs and staring at each other–the actors direct an awful lot of energy toward trying to make us believe literally in what is happening. As a result, the entire event becomes fake. For example, one audience member asked Hennessey, “Where is your wound?” He quickly responded, “On my leg,” and turned away from the questioner. Obviously the audience member asked the question that could have caused the entire play to collapse–we’re all supposed to overlook the fact that no real injury took place, even though Hennessey acts as if it has (in fact, the wound in his leg is part of the reason he decided not to take Malcolm down to the station in the first place). And once the first lie is exposed, all the others–the knife is a toy, Hennessey and Malcolm are actors–cannot be avoided, and the issues the piece wants to explore become irrelevant.

Perhaps if director Sandra Bykowski would allow her actors to acknowledge that they are actors, that they are pretending, a certain amount of strain would be relieved. Instead of trying to convince the audience that everything is real, the actors might invite us to pretend along with them. That technique worked quite well in the last Wild Onion show I saw–A Room Without Walls, also directed by Bykowski–in which the line between reality and fantasy was blurred, but where and how it was drawn was always questioned. Here the need to ask such questions seems to have been forgotten.

Given this difficult situation, Bowen and Moore still turn in admirable performances. Bowen is particularly engaging, with a powerful voice and commanding presence that make him a figure of both respect and dread. His job is difficult, since he must act the part he plays in real life, but he never falls prey to self- consciousness or self-parody.