By Elisabeth Vincentelli
09.01.2017 / New York Times
Theater can’t really do superheroes or massive natural catastrophes, so it must find more imaginative ways to suggest forces greater than we are. In “Top Secret International (State 1),” audience members hear voices, piped in via cordless headphones, that tell them where to go and what to do. In “Real Magic,” the actors themselves are stuck in a cosmic loop-de-loop, seemingly powerless to stop repeating their actions until they collapse from exhaustion — or we do.
Technology is too often a gimmick, but in “Top Secret International,” presented by the German Rimini Protokoll collective at the Under the Radar festival, technology is the show’s mode of delivery and its subject. And, as so often happens in real life, technology was the bane of my experience, with numerous glitches that added an hour to the 90-minute running time. Those who have tried to upgrade a computer’s operating system will sympathize.
After receiving headphones, a pencil and a mysteriously thick notebook, theatergoers are let loose in the Brooklyn Museum, mostly the Egyptian wing, where they embark on solo journeys as mysterious voices jabber on about surveillance, cybersecurity and spying. The general approach is similar to that of Rimini Protokoll’s 2015 show “Remote New York,” which also involved headphones — the company is concerned with the relationship between performer and audience, as well as issues of connection and connectivity, civics and ethics.
The disembodied narrators sometimes inform, as with testimonies from various cyberexperts, and sometimes ask us to make choices that will influence the rest of our expedition. The process is similar to that of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, though they never freeze or sternly tell you, “You are not where you are supposed to be.”
The most compelling part of the show is the way it turns audience members into actors — a staple of thrillers in which a clueless bystander is suddenly thrown into a crazy plot. But the shenanigans here are more sedate, like trying to pass on a note to another would-be spy. After being told to enter a bathroom stall, we are instructed to “find a good place to sit” — not too hard since the options number exactly one.
While “Top Secret International” traffics in tech, Forced Entertainment’s “Real Magic,” which ran through Sunday at the Coil festival, is simple as can be: a cast of three, a chair, a mike stand, a few lights.
The characters, portrayed by the show’s creators Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon and Claire Marshall, play a clairvoyance game in which a blindfolded candidate, egged on by an M.C., must guess a random word written on a piece of cardboard. If that person fails, the three swap roles and do it again, with minute alterations in inflection, perhaps a quick costume change. Then they do it again. And again. There are canned applause and laughter, cheesy music. The words never change, and neither do the guesses. At the Saturday performance, someone in the audience eventually yelled out the word. Someone else quickly added, “Thank God!” Then the pair got up and left in the middle of the show.
The British company’s artistic director, Tim Etchells, has said the piece is about feeling trapped — a sentiment his audience would know all too well — but also about escape through constant change. Indeed, the segments are all different, sometimes dramatically so, sometimes in subtle ways. It’s as if Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner were playing an absurdist game show based on “No Exit,” or perhaps a postmodern take on the Raymond Queneau book “Exercises in Style,” which tells the same anecdote in 99 different ways.
“Real Magic” is an alternately infuriating, exciting, dreadful, boring, imaginative rendering of playing and being played. And nobody ever wins