Picture a Friday night on North Campus. It is early spring, not yet warm enough to have an enjoyable walk from one place to another. I see two couples running late to the show. The men take advantage of their longer legs to make swift, long strides in the direction of the auditorium. The women, following close behind, visibly let out a breath of relief when they entered the building. The doors to the studio where the play was to take place were still closed due to technical difficulties. They were not late after all.
The studio was small, and the set up was unusual. Instead of encountering the elevated stage and staggered, ascending seating typical of theatre, the two couples were met by a semi-empty room with a few platforms of various heights in the middle, more resembling a dance studio than anything else. Based on Indian street theatre and written by an Indian playwright, Rana Bose, “The Death of Abbie Hoffman” is supposed to evoke a feeling of inclusiveness and informality between the audience and the actors by breaking the stereotypical roles in which they both normally reside.
Having expected something else when they entered the room, the couples looked confused when the ushers quickly directed them to sit on the platforms, which were already partly filled by actors. Soon after, the lights unexpectedly went off and the actors stood and started speedily walking around the platforms.
“Consensus,” they yelled. “Consensus. Consensus. Consensus,” and nothing else.
Someone died in the play, and nobody noticed. “She dies every day,” the actors said. “A girl named Nina dies every day, and nobody notices.”
As for the couples and the rest of the audience, myself included, it was hard to keep up with the action of the play. Heads were turning as fast as possible, but the actors never stopped. They ran, they danced, they screamed, they stood. The platforms were not comfortable to sit on, and there was a constant awareness of the actors, as well as an inevitable and natural reluctance to make eye contact with them. What will they do next? Where are they? Why did they just hand me a water bottle?
Minds were racing as the audience tried to decipher the connections between characters and scenes. The platforms we sat on were getting more and more uncomfortable by the minute, but the frustration kept anyone from moving. This was not the experience we were expecting. We could see the actors’ calloused feet and feel their breath as they ran past us on the stage. This unorthodox setting made some of the audience members feel uncomfortable, as it wasn’t what they had encoded in their minds for a night at the theatre. Everyone expected to be a passive member of the audience, but this wasn’t the case.
The actors never stop dancing, singing or running while looking to or engaging with the audience in some way. However, every song or line they recited, even though unrecognizable, had a hint of familiarity within it. At one point, they broke into a song, which the audience recognized as “Hey Jude,” but we looked at each other, puzzled. The words weren’t correct. They sang about Donald Trump and campus climate. “Hey Jude” sounded more like, “Hey dude, have you read the news lately?” All the actors did was take something familiar and turn it upside down.
There were hints of familiarity in all of the lines, but no line ultimately formed a coherent sentence, no scene formed a coherent plot and no character formed a coherent relationship. However, themes of social change, revolutions, generational conflicts and activism were present throughout the play. Roles of actor and audience were broken, as well as expectations for a play. Rising action, climax and resolution were replaced by nonsensical songs and lines that ultimately added up to a bigger theme. The ’60s are dead. Protests are dead. We go to plays to be entertained. We read the news to be validated. We are deaf. Nobody is murdered. Nobody disagrees. Theatre can be used for change, but it is used for assimilation.
“This is the end, folks. Have a nice weekend,” the actors said as they clapped for themselves. The actors stood up and walked away from the room, leaving the audience wide-eyed and silent. Nothing had ever been more unclear. Who is Abbie Hoffman anyway?