Two performance works this week by the British company Forced Entertainment opened the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh’s exceedingly timely series, “Strange Times: Earth in the Age of the Human.” Forced Entertainment is a company known for work that deliberately breaks with many of the conventions of theatre, such as the expectation for entertainment, or for character development, or for narrative pleasure and closure in a theatrical performance. Their work instead explores questions about what is being negotiated when a performer stands in front of an audience. Postdramatic in approach, Forced Entertainment’s performances often revolve around repetition; they traffic in awkwardness and cultivate a quality of makeshiftness and lack of polish; they often are built like a strange game, with rules and constraints that must be absolutely followed, and which lend their pieces a highly formal integrity and structure. Moreover, although the performances are often deeply absurd and weird, there is a fundamental realness to what is happening on stage. Actors might stand on stage with fake grimaces pasted on their faces, or wear inexplicable costumes or hideously ugly wigs, but that artifice will be contrasted with a realism of actor presence that points up the immanence of the moment of performance. In other words: in their work, what is happening in the moment is what is happening in the moment. Forced Entertainment’s work is bracing because it is operating on multiple levels, speaking to, and denying, our desire to be lulled and entertained, challenging us to be bored or confounded, and using form as well as content to comment on contemporary social and existential predicaments.
In Tomorrow’s Parties (the first of the two pieces they brought to Pittsburgh) the setup is deceptively simple. Two performers—Richard Lowdon and Claire Marshall—step onto a small makeshift platform made out of a couple of stacked shipping pallets. They are framed by a string of multicolored carnival lights, and dressed in everyday clothing. They stand matter-of-factly and speak directly to the audience.
“In the future,” Lowdon begins, and what follows is a series of speculations—ranging from whimsical to dire, and traded back and forth between Lowdon and Marshall—on possible futures. Their affect is low-key and conversational, more like they are telling us casually of New Year’s resolutions (as in, “in the future, I will exercise more”) than performing a story. Yet the effect is mesmerizing, transporting even—at times the performers evoke a future with such mundane detail that it almost feels as if you are dreaming it. Some of the futures described are optimistic and hopeful, others are dystopic and bleak; some take flights of fancy into the sublime, and others descend into the downright silly. In places the back and forth even plays out a pointed, if rather subdued, gender battle. Marshall imagines that in the future, there will be no men, just women and a sperm bank. Lowdon counters with a future that has few men, all of whom can let themselves go physically because they are in demand, and an overabundance of women, whose social roles depend on their age and attractiveness. Marshall parries with a future in which there are no human men, but aliens, who are “just like human men, but superior to them in every way possible.” Lowdon one-ups her with a future that has no people at all. The jockeying between the two performers is sly, but never overtly hostile or aggressive; they float their speculations with the calm demeanor of someone settled in for a long day of fishing, casting out scenarios, letting them play out for a bit, and then reeling them back and casting in another direction.
At its most provocative, Tomorrow’s Parties delivers a charge of recognition that a dystopian future it describes is actually already here — as, for example, when Lowdon describes a future in which “people won’t encounter animals at all, except in zoos” or when Marshall suggests that “it will be just like now” and then proceeds to describe what can only be categorized as a fully dystopian set of circumstances. At its most poignant and harrowing, Tomorrow’s Parties delivers a stinging indictment of our present time from the perspective of the future, imagining that people will look back on our times with moral outrage at our unsustainable depletion of the earth’s resources, and will think about our times “always with anger.” And at its most political, Tomorrow’s Parties makes trenchant observations about our current social and economic priorities, using one scenario to draw a line from our current loyalty to brands and products into a future in which corporations are more important than churches or nations, and another scenario to pillory those who see climate change as unproblematic because the sun will eventually swallow the earth. Shimmering between anticipation and despair, these speculations about the future are simultaneously unsettling and comforting, offering hope by virtue of the sheer number of options these performers can conjure. Quiet, funny, incisive, and haunting, Tomorrow’s Parties is an apposite opening sally for a series that asks “will we survive ourselves?”
Real Magic, the second work, explores existential dilemmas of a different sort. Once again, the stage elements are simple and limited: a square of green astroturf is framed by a semi-circle of vertical fluorescent lights; in the center of the astroturf is a microphone on a stand, and next to it, a chair. A few costumes are strewn upstage, at the base of the lights; three rectangles of cardboard lay face down on the floor in a pile. In this piece, Lowdon and Marshall are joined by Jerry Killick, and the three performers take the stage to the sound of canned applause and a repeating loop of the kind of upbeat, vamping music you might hear between circus acts or as the accompaniment to a whacky television game show. And what ensues is, indeed, a ludicrous game show-cum-mindreading act: Lowdon sits and ties on a blindfold; Killick, acting in the role of game show host, ascertains that they are all strangers, and have never met before; and then Killick instructs Lowdon to try to guess the word that Marshall is thinking of. Marshall – dressed in a big yellow chicken suit – displays the word CARAVAN on a piece of cardboard. Lowdon guesses: “Electricity?” “Hole?” “Money?” “No,” Killick cries, “that’s three chances, you’re out. Let’s swap.”
And that set of events, repeated but with variations, makes up the performance. The performers trade roles, the word on the cardboard changes from CARAVAN to ALGEBRA to SAUSAGE, the soundtrack changes from applause, to laughter, to the ticking of a countdown clock, to a mournful violin solo and back again; and the performers change and exchange clothes, donning and doffing chicken suits as the scenario endlessly loops. What doesn’t change is the basic structure of the task or the outcome of the game; the host always sets up the game and explains the rules, the thinker always holds up a cardboard sign with one of the three words, and the guesser always guesses the same three wrong words.
Even so, the game changes every time it is repeated. In one iteration, the stakes feel deadly serious and the tone is quiet and intense; in another, the performers are silly and flippant, breezing through the routine without much care for the consequences. At times the host is encouraging and positive; at others, the host becomes menacing and severe. The guesser is sometimes hopeful, sometimes nervous, sometimes confident, sometimes terrified. As the performance progresses, the game starts to become frenzied and chaotic; then exhaustion sets in, and something akin to despair. Occasionally they interrupt the routine to “do the dance,” a slow approximation of a chicken dance.
There are shades of No Exit to this scenario, a feeling that these three people are trapped in some kind of awful purgatory, doomed to execute the same set of tasks for eternity. And yet, the performers’ investment in each iteration has the odd effect of giving you hope that they’ll “get it right” even after it becomes clear, many repetitions in, that the pattern will never be broken. Indeed, the company makes fun of its own commitment to the rule it has established for the performance: in one instance, Killick cheats and shows Lowdon the word he’s supposed to guess. “Sometimes the answer is right in front of you,” Marshall intones, as the host, “Just look and you will find.” But – astonishingly, maddeningly – Lowdon still comes up with the wrong three guesses. And – perhaps just as surprisingly – despite their exhaustion with the pattern, the other two don’t choose to simply lie and tell him that one of his guesses is correct. What’s more, no one in the audience ever shouts out the correct answer. We’re all complicit in this frustrating game of guaranteed failure.
That dynamic – in which all three feel beholden to rules that trap them in patterns they are desperate to break – beautifully captures the double-bind in which we all seem to be caught, unable to escape the political and existential patterns in which we’re trapped, even when the answers are right in front of our collective noses, and doomed to failure because the game is impossible to begin with. At the same time, Real Magic also seems to be commenting on our enthrallment with, and to, spectacle, and on the distractive, hamster-wheel effect spectacle has on our attention. Real Magic is a riveting, disturbing, delightful, and completely ridiculous show that scratches at uncomfortable existential itches, and ends with an elegaic gesture toward the need to dance on, inventing ever new strategies, even knowing that we will probably never really “get it right.”