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The History of the World

The Living Theater's latest show meanders through many historical periods, asking the audience to take part along the way.

Soraya Broukhim and company
in The History of the World
(© Janne Hoem)
"I am Socrates/They say I'm the wisest man alive/That's why they condemned me to death/Because we always kill the wisest and the best: That simplistic speech is meant to be the point of Living Theatre's latest play, grandiosely titled The History of the World.

Sadly, the 90-minute work, co-created by founder Judith Malina, meanders through a series of historical executions (Jesus, Socrates, Joan of Arc) and vague periods of time (like the Roman Empire and the industrial revolution), and her characters are never more than mouthpieces for her cause.

The company's desire to break the fourth wall and incorporate the audience in the show is intriguing, but it plays out in awkward and unsettling ways. Unquestionably, the actors are passionate and well-meaning -- and they assume that you are just as comfortable being as vulnerable as they are from the moment they approach your group in the theater's tiny reception area to lead you by hand into the theater.

Once you're inside the black box space -- with a floor painted like it just escaped from a mod party -- you are asked to stand in a circle in what feels like a terrible ice-breaking exercise. Throughout the show, the actors also tell you to help them "build the industrial revolution", which basically amounts to a series of interpretive dance movements.

It seems like the show's goal is to put us inside history -- actors often ask "who are you?" in the French Revolution, death of Socrates -- but the company needs to create a more conducive environment for the immersion to succeed. Most audience members never get the time to lose their inhibitions and freely participate.

In the final scene, a number of the young actors disrobe (a la Hair) as a voice declares "follow us into the beautiful non-violent anarchist revolution!" What might have turned into an orgy 40 years ago instead devolves into little more than an awkward dance party.


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