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British troupe uses the audience as plaything

November 30, 2005|Charles McNulty | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Forced Entertainment, the experimental British theater group that specializes in a kind of comedy of audience frustration, has an uncanny knack for turning funny ha-ha into funny strange.

Take "First Night," the company's pseudo-cabaret extravaganza, a piece that has yet to come to America. What apparently begins as a string of cheesy variety acts, a bunch of talent-free phonies in tuxes and sequins, transforms into something far less comfortably amusing when a crackpot clairvoyant starts rapidly pointing at audience members while reeling off such dire fates as car crash, brain hemorrhage, cancer, cancer, cancer.

Tim Etchells, the company's director and mastermind, delights in the fact that people can't figure out how to react. "They'll start laughing," he says over coffee at an East Village cafe during a recent Manhattan visit. "Then they'll stop laughing. Then someone in the audience will cough and be told that he has tuberculosis. And because it's a direct riff, it'll be funny again, but then it won't be. One time a fight almost broke out, with one guy screaming 'boring' and another telling him to 'shut up.' "

On a good night, Etchells says, "the experience becomes a sculpture of what people will take and what they're prepared to laugh at." And on a bad one? "Naturally, the audience we like to play to is the one that can enjoy going someplace tricky."

Dedicated to just such tricky endeavors, UCLA Live concludes its fourth International Theatre Festival with "Bloody Mess," Forced Entertainment's latest and most ambitious production. The show, which has garnered some of the company's best reviews, runs Thursday through Sunday at the Freud Playhouse.

For Etchells, an amiable and not particularly arty-looking fortysomething bloke (the kind you might imagine enjoying a few pints during a Manchester United game), the group's strange and sometimes off-putting tactics are part of a larger inquiry: "We're interested in testing the relation between the stage and the auditorium -- what's required, what's necessary, what's expected and how can you fool around with it. I suppose what we try to do is have a lot of fun while being quite provocative. It might be alienating for a little while, but there's always this desire on our part to say, 'OK it's over now. Here's a little gift. We'll make friends with you again.' But then, of course, it's going to get difficult again."

Comedy isn't always the chosen route for Forced Entertainment, and even when it is, the group's signature deadpan muffles the hilarity. At most you're likely to find yourself harboring a laugh, often for an inconveniently long time. Sometimes the company opts to play with boredom, slowly focusing attention on something that might not seem deserving of such patient scrutiny. A few of their earlier, largely improvised productions were of inordinate length, one taking 24 marathon hours to perform. And when film or other multimedia effects are incorporated, it might not always be clear to what end the gadgetry is being used.

But whatever the bizarre, collectively conceived scheme, the work forces the audience into a state of self-consciousness in which it becomes, willingly or not, actively involved in defining the theatrical experience. It's the audience's job, in other words, to connect the thematic dots, wherever and whenever it can find them.

Forced Entertainment, based in Sheffield, England (not exactly an avant-garde hotbed), has had more success in continental Europe than in Britain. The core company is Etchells (who rarely acts) and five performer-collaborators, who have been together since their student days at Exeter University more than 20 years ago. They have been influenced as much by music, dance, installation art and film as theater.

Compared with, say, Improbable, a similarly innovative British performance ensemble that quickly won acclaim in London, Los Angeles and New York, Forced Entertainment has had a longer struggle. Yet acceptance on home shores has finally come with enviable London invitations and ardent notices from the formerly uninterested mainstream critics. Last year even the Financial Times said that the company's principals were "the best group of stage actors in Britain."

"Britain being what it is, quite conservative theatrically speaking, we knew that the only thing was to commit to the work for the long haul," says Etchells. "We'll just keep doing it and then they won't be able to ignore it. It's a tedious tactic, but it did work in a way. After 10 years, those people in the big theaters have had to turn around and say, 'They're still there. They're doing that weird stuff and they haven't gone away. We'd better think again.' "

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