Offensive. Repugnant. Sick. Few theater directors enjoy hearing these words from patrons, especially as they're bolting up the aisle ahead of the first-act curtain. Then again, for some there's a certain satisfaction in knowing you're still on track.
"The audiences are getting bigger," notes Last Planet Theatre's artistic director, John R. Wilkins. "Sometimes they hate it and walk out. They aren't walking out, out of boredom. They're walking out because it's too much."
That's all right with him, provided what offends is delivered with artistic skill, vision, and honesty. "It's not a lie that a 14-year-old rape victim, a retarded girl, should fall in love with a 45-year-old man who rapes her in diarrhea sex," he muses. "I mean, it takes a lot to portray, but it doesn't take a lot to imagine [the humanity of these characters]. You can say Seth [the 45-year-old in Franz Xaver Kroetz's Farmyard] is corrupt. And he is — he's wrong. But he's going for it. Like the woman in [Howard Brenton's] Sore Throats. To me, that's just exactly perfect. Go and burn all the money, go out and destroy yourself — either live or destroy yourself. In the realm of art, that's great."
Not every production from Last Planet merits a walkout. But without fail every Last Planet production is an attempt to take the audience beyond the expected, the usual, the safe, and the prepackaged.
To that extent, Last Planet has been proudly offending audiences since 1998 — the year husband and wife John and Kimball Wilkins shelved their new Berkeley PhDs in English to pursue what they privately concede was a madcap dream of founding a theater company. The company has been in its own 80-seat theater since 2004 and comprises a small group of committed collaborators — including longtime associates Paul Rasmussen and Andrew Jones, the core of the company's outstanding production team. Its productions of highly literary and brazenly theatrical work by the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Matthew Maguire, Michael McClure, Wallace Shawn, Howard Barker, and Ronald Ribman have less to do with a narrow sense of authenticity or realism than a commitment to exploring all you might be capable of feeling and thinking inside a theater. Along the way Last Planet presents an invariably bold and imaginative theatrical vision that's in a refreshingly distinct orbit of its own.
"It has to be beautiful and confrontational," John says, explaining the qualities that attract the company to a given work. "Those are some of the things we look for: sheer beauty and sheer brutality at the same time."
Kimball pinpoints another crucial theme: "The logic or vision of the play has to believe more deeply in experience — the mystery of experience and the possibility of experience — than a particular idea, let alone an ideology. There's something about the strength of experience in the plays that's always an attraction."
"We just see so many plays which are like copycats of television or copycats of movies," John says. "They aren't theatrical. They don't have any theatrical models. Or if they do, they're horribly content. You don't get the type of nuts like Howard Barker or Howard Brenton and [Anthony] Neilson and Kroetz, who are just nutty to destroy the form that they love."
"It's a creative destruction," Kimball says.
"Yeah, a creative destructive force," John agrees. "So you're sitting there thinking, can we match it? Pulling tricks on [the audience] — theatrical tricks are fine, but go right at them and try to grab them, shake them up and not let them loose and not let it be easy."
"That's not to say that it shouldn't be enjoyable," he adds with a laugh. "We don't want to be avant-garde nuts. It should be an absolutely enjoyable experience. But given that, [it] should destroy people." (Robert Avila)