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The World in Pictures

There are easier things than trying to depict all of recorded history in less than two hours (let alone review it), but in its latest epic, "The World in Pictures," the U.K.'s Forced Entertainment takes its customary lunatic pageant beyond farce to the resonance of the human condition.

With:
With: Robin Arthur, Davis Freeman, Wendy Houstoun, Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall, Terry O'Connor, Bruno Roubicek

There are easier things than trying to depict all of recorded history in less than two hours (let alone review it), but in its latest epic, “The World in Pictures,” the U.K.’s Forced Entertainment takes its customary lunatic pageant beyond farce to the resonance of the human condition.

In a company tradition, the actor chosen to present the opening monologue (here, the guileless Jerry Killick) is offered backhanded advice by the company: “Don’t try anything too clever.” “Use your training.” “One thing: This isn’t a rehearsal.”

Killick begins an entrancing, rambling narrative in which he asks us to imagine killing time in a strange but not entirely unfamiliar city. This odd stroll moves from the mundane (“You see a cafe and decide you’ll have a coffee there on the way back”) to questions of cosmic relevance as a suicide fantasy develops, a plunge from the roof of a building where the door just happened to be open.

“We don’t think about God and the soul much anymore, and this seems like a fantastic opportunity to answer those questions, but what holds you back? Fear, but you’re already falling.” Killick switches on freeze-frame as the pavement inches up, and notes this is a good place to begin.

And begin it does, with the octet donning makeshift caveman drag to “re-enact the volcano scene from ‘One Million Years B.C.’ starring Raquel Welch, launching the musical accompaniment, a series of aural assaults seemingly compiled from soundtracks to disaster movies.

The deadpan Terry O’Connor takes the microphone to introduce herself (“I’ll be talking you through the story of mankind”) and offer frequent admonitions to cast members (with the discovery of fire — indicated by a couple of space heaters — a caveman is warned, “Mind your ass”).

Technological advances come fast and furious: When a laptop is introduced, three cavemen immediately discover Internet porn; stage snow is tossed from atop a ladder as the wheel is invented; Cleopatra attacks some scenery with a power drill (“The Roman empire is a fucking loud place,” O’Connor shouts above the din).

Scrambling to keep the evening on time, some milestones are glazed over: As for Christianity, Richard Lowdon moves from his guise as Emperor Fellatio to a crucifixion position.

As the stage darkens for the Dark Ages, Killick comments on seemingly random computer-generated images (“a half-eaten chicken”) until his melancholy stream-of-consciousness narration makes it clear these are things that might run through your mind as your body topples from that roof.

We hurtle through the Middle Ages (“What we need is Courtney Love, uh, courtly love”), the Black Death, the Age of Reason (“Jerry, could you Google Descartes?”), the “long hot summer afternoon of the 19th century” and all the wars of the 20th and 21st, the end of the Keynesian liberal consensus, “blah blah, a lot of other stuff.”

Killick ties it up with a simple, eloquent reflection on memory and time. He first asks what details we remember in the hour preceding the performance, then enumerates future centuries in which anyone who remembers us will be dead, when any reference to us might be “stored on an obsolete information system or deleted,” and when the city in which we sit will be a desert, underwater or a vacuum.

The last word? “Make the most of the time we have.”

This crazy quilt of music hall, “Beyond the Fringe” zaniness and existentialism is a lovely way to while away some time as oblivion approaches.

The World in Pictures

Halle G Im Museumsquartier, Vienna; 336 Seats; E25 ($32) Top

Production: A Forced Entertainment, Sheffield/Volksbuhne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin/Wiener Festwochen/Les Spectacles Vivants -- Centre Pompidou, Paris/Productiehuis Rotterdam/Rotterdamse Schouwburg/Kunstencentrum Vooruit, Ghent/Nuffield Theater, Lancaster/Tramway, Glasgow/Warwick Arts Center presentation of a play in one act, conceived and devised by Tim Etchells and Forced Entertainment. Directed by Etchells.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Richard Lowdon; lighting, Nigel Edwards. Opened June 1, 2006. Reviewed June 4. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.

Cast: With: Robin Arthur, Davis Freeman, Wendy Houstoun, Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall, Terry O'Connor, Bruno Roubicek

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