In a program note, Forced Entertainment artistic director Tim Etchells describes his company's Real Magic as "picking at the complex political place we find ourselves in these days — down the bumpy road to Brexit, in the dark realm of Trump." Indeed, the show now playing at the Walker Art Center for week four of this year's Out There series feels exactly like avant-garde theater for the age of Trump: nihilist and excruciating, with a rapidly disintegrating veneer of normalcy and order.
One attendee, at show's end on Thursday, was heard to say, "I've never felt such strong emotions about a play before." She didn't articulate precisely what those emotions were, and maybe she couldn't have: Even by the bracing aesthetic standards of Out There, Real Magic asks its audience for a lot. The show is a genuine ordeal; on Thursday, a couple of people walked out and at least one audience member emitted an agonized scream.
All this for a game show? Well, yes. Though there's no loss of life or limb in Real Magic, the participants seem like they'd be gladly willing to play the Hunger Games instead.
Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon, and Claire Marshall — all using their real names, just to twist the knife — rotate among the roles of host, accomplice, and contestant. The object of the game is simple: The accomplice thinks of a word, indicated to the audience by way of a sign, and the blindfolded contestant has to guess that word.
It could be "any word in the English language," as we're often reminded. That makes this a tough game, but actually it's even tougher than it seems. As Claire, Jerry, and Richard swap roles, they inevitably find when they get in the contestant's seat that any memory of the words written on the signs (of which there are only three) has completely disappeared.
Even when the accomplice stage-whispers the word, even when audience members cry it out, the contestant just can't get it right. Each contestant finds himself or herself unable to make any guesses other than the same wrong words that are incorrectly guessed once, twice, eventually dozens of times.
This goes on for 90 minutes. The show could make its point in an hour, even in a half-hour, but the company's called Forced Entertainment for a reason — and for three-plus decades they've been famous, or infamous, for testing their audiences. They want you to really feel this discomfort, to journey with them to the edge of madness. At first Real Magic seems like a game show designed by Beckett or Sartre, but by the end it starts to feel more like something out of a Werner Herzog movie.
The (lack of) action unfolds on a rectangle of artificial turf under the bright glare of lights that occasionally pulse in time with suspenseful music. At other points, the music becomes eerie and mournful, or yields to loops of canned cheers or laughter. When the participants really can't take it any more, they pause for a bleakly repetitive dance, executed in chicken suits provided for the purpose.
Directed by Etchells and devised with the company, Real Magic varies the proceedings with gradations of tone and pacing, even with little sight gags and physical comedy. Well before the show's end, though, even those small mercies have been ground into uselessness as the performers' futile quest to break the loop drags on and on and on.
Where your mind goes during all of this is something you'll have to discover for yourself. Some might think of politics, with the "game show" akin to the near-meaningless act of voting under an autocracy.
Others will think of theater itself, of how and why an audience will sit through 90 desperate minutes of grinding repetition. Some might resolve to stop buying lottery tickets.
Whatever you do, you're not likely to forget the time you spent with Forced Entertainment. Those magic words, though...what were they again?
IF YOU GO:
Out There 2018: Real Magic
Walker Art Center
8 p.m. Friday