There isn’t any death, political strife, or systemic violence in Real Magic, a production by the experimental British theater group Forced Entertainment that’s running at On the Boards this weekend, yet it may claim the title of the darkest play staged in Seattle this season.
It one-ups Jean-Paul Sartre by creating the game show from hell. But you won't find Waiting for Godot's existentialism nor No Exit's humanity in Real Magic. You'll only find words, emotions, and interactions sucked dry of meaning and scattered in random order. Signifiers are dead ends, feelings are interchangeable, and the only respite from endless, nonsensical questions is the world’s most depressing chicken dance.
Three performers—Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon, and Claire Marshall—walk on the stage with no fanfare. Jerry, hideously bewigged, tells Richard, blindfolded, that he must guess the word Claire, chicken-suited, is thinking of. (We know she’s thinking of “caravan,” because she’s holding a big cardboard sign.) Richard guesses wrong three times. They swap roles. Now Richard is the host, Jerry is thinking of a word, and Claire is in the hot seat. She guesses the same three wrong words. They swap. The game remains the same even as the dialogue permutes into even more absurd forms.
The host is variously sympathetic, bored, mean, jovial, bathetic, or desperate. The guest is terrified, overconfident, aggravated, miserable, or plain stupid. The three constantly switch costumes for no apparent reason. Exchanges that meant little to begin with become downright ridiculous (“What’s your name, Jerry?” “JERRY!” “What’s Richard’s name, Jerry?” “RICHARD!!!”).
Real Magic shuns suspense, empathy, symbolism, or anything else that normally brings us to the theater. But somehow the play works. The audience is willingly conned by displays of pathos and despair that the show makes clear are absolutely meaningless. “Just DO IT!!” a woman yelled next to me to the hapless guest before he guessed the wrong word for the hundredth time that night. We groaned with the sad violin soundtrack and giggled with the canned laughter.
So what does that mean? Are we all just so thirsty for drama that we’ll fall for the most obvious simulacrum of real life? Or is our reactivity a sign of our good hearts? Here’s my answer: Watching three excellent performers sabotage theatrical convention in a show of durational bravura is, well, fun. We’re happy to laugh and moan along because we want to sustain that magic, even the magic of destruction. That’s entertainment.