Most theater makers would be offended and a little wounded by walkouts -- audience members so displeased with a performance that they get up and leave, right in the middle of a scene.
But Scott Feldsher, co-founding artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre and now back at its helm, has a different perspective: "We haven't had enough walkouts in the last 10 years in the theater. Walkouts are a good sign that you're doing your job," he said in a recent interview.
If that's the case, then Sledgehammer -- the city's most provocative, experimental and irreverent theater group -- is certainly doing its job with Charles Mee's "Chiang Kai Chek."
At a recent production of the interdisciplinary play, two women wobbled out of the darkened theater in the middle of a scene comprising high-decibel industrial rock music and abstract video images blazing across the rear of the stage.
The Sledgehammer show clearly isn't for everyone.
To be fair, that scene is the only instance of such uncomfortably earsplitting sound design. And the aural pandemonium has a purpose within the larger context of this powerful, visually alluring play.
In a swirl of dissonant music performed live by Nick Carvajal, Markee Rambo-Hood's operatic singing, modern dance by Eveoke Dance Theatre's Ericka Moore and David Cannon's abstract videos, John Polak as the titular character sits Zen-like as the calm center of this sensory commotion.
Polak delivers lines about the brutality of war with smiling composure and the deceptively fatherly tone of a 1940s educational film on STDs. The tenor of his voice becomes flat as he speaks of his own personal experience with death and the violence of war, and by the time he recites a litany of ways to commit torture and murder, he is completely lacking emotion. It's as if he's reading something as innocuous and boring as a protracted grocery list.
His emotional detachment is emblematic of how a political leader can abstract the pain and suffering of others in the name of a cause, thereby becoming unyielding and devoid of empathy.
The play takes as its subject the Chinese dictator who ruled China from 1928 to 1949 with twin zealotry for Christianity and eradicating the communists from China. His methodologies were ruthless, with tragic consequences for millions of Chinese peasants.
But the nonlinear, plotless show has modern resonance, particularly with our continuing war in Iraq, torture at Abu Ghraib and ongoing investigations into the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians at Haditha.
"Chiang Kai Chek" has a vaguely Eastern look, with Sarah Golden's costumes and Nick Fouch's multileveled set with shoji screens doubling as projection panels. Feldsher directs the piece at a languid pace, inspired by Japanese Noh theater, which is known for its ritualistic, slow grace and visual beauty.
The movements -- down to each step taken and the tilt of a head -- are measured, deliberate and stylized. Moore's simple yet achingly beautiful gestures sometimes mirror Polak's; at other times she portrays through dance the anguish and revulsion at violence that Chiang is able to suppress.
Mezzo-soprano Rambo-Hood warbles through Franz Schubert arias and Asian-inspired original music by Seattle-based composer Tim Root. She conjures the Western-influenced Madame Chek, the generalissimo's famous wife, through her captivating voice and movement, alternately displaying flirtation, aggression and shame.
The Sledgehammer show might not suit everyone's taste. But anyone who loves experimental or alternative theater should not miss it.
Sledgehammer suffered major setbacks last year, with the loss of St. Cecilia's Playhouse and departure of artistic director Kirsten Brandt. But as the theater closes its 20th anniversary season, it has renewed artistic vision in Feldsher and a new home in Eveoke's renovated Tenth Avenue Theatre.
And if "Chiang Kai Chek" is any indication, we can expect more challenging, thoughtful and stimulating work from the edgy theater company in the future.
"We're hoping to push people's buttons, not just politically but aesthetically," Feldsher said.
Expect more walkouts, too.
PROGRAM: "Chiang Kai Chek"
Organization: Sledgehammer Theatre
Dates: Through July 2
Show times: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m. except July 2 at 2 p.m.
Location: Tenth Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Ave., downtown
More information: (619) 544-1484, www.sledgehammer.org