'Spectacular'

Potted palms arranged around a huge, sweeping staircase take up half the stage. At one side, a four-man combo plays up-tempo tunes, and then the warm-up guy rouses the audience into gales of laughter.

Potted palms arranged around a huge, sweeping staircase take up half the stage. At one side, a four-man combo plays up-tempo tunes, and then the warm-up guy rouses the audience into gales of laughter. It’s all real enough, except we are experiencing it in our collective mind’s eye: The description comes from a slightly paunchy chap, Robin Arthur, clad in a cheesy skeleton costume on a bare stage in Forced Entertainment’s latest spectacular, appropriately entitled “Spectacular.”

With shows overflowing with sets, costumes and props, dealing with the origins of the universe (“Bloody Mess”) and the history of mankind (“The World in Pictures”), “Spectacular” appears to be the final part of a trilogy cooked up by the Sheffield-based group’s six core members — leading to our collective, inevitable end.

For 75 minutes, Arthur regales us with details of how the show is usually performed but repeatedly returns to the phrase “Tonight things are different.”

And different they are. Arthur’s soothing, avuncular voice is all we have to go on. In addition to his black sweatpants and sweatshirt painted with bones, he wears a wrap-around skull mask that obscures his entire face, including his mouth and — most disconcertingly — his eyes. There is no facial expression to accompany the words. Instead, Arthur relies on limited body language. A favorite pose consists of one hand bent at the wrist resting against his ribcage.

Fifteen minutes into his description of the usual show, including his entrance (“There’s a little bit of an edge when I appear”), a woman (Claire Marshall) nonchalantly walks up to a microphone and interrupts: “I’d like to do my dying now.”

Over the next hour, Marshall goes through every conceivable scream, gurgle, collapse, thrash and crawl of the most excruciating death possible, sometimes in a manner so over the top you can’t help but laugh, and sometimes so chillingly you can’t breathe. While continuing his “Spectacular” story, Arthur observes and directs Marshall, suggesting another position may be more effective or wondering if the repeated banging of a hand is actually Morse code.

Arthur is soon posing the kind of probing, power-of-suggestion questions that are a hallmark of Forced Entertainment’s extravaganzas: “You’re thinking of another place and ask, ‘How long have I been standing here?'” The questions become increasingly deep, challenging us to take stock of our lives as a skeleton places a microphone next to a supine body in order to better catch its death rattle, all the while injecting droll commentary.

Confessing that telling stories or making political jokes is not his forte, Arthur relates how he sometimes sneaks a look into the notebook kept by the show’s comic, but the contents don’t always make sense. Just as his monologue reaches its darkest point (“I am being and nothingness”), Marshall’s renewed hysteria forces him to confess his discomfort with the absurdity of it all.

After a final interruption in which Marshall asks Arthur to be quiet so she can do her last bit, Arthur describes how the show usually ends with extended curtain calls, thanks, maybe some tickertape and a party atmosphere. “Obviously it’s a bit different tonight,” he concludes.

But it’s not over just yet: As the lights dim, Arthur repeats four words, stolen from the last page of the comic’s notebook and devastating in their simplicity and impact, bringing us to the logical conclusion begun with “Bloody Mess.”

Since premiering in Vienna, the show has begun a U.K. tour that continues through Dec. 6.

Spectacular

Brut im Kuenstlerhaus, Vienna, Austria; 104 seats; E13 $18 top

Production

A Forced Entertainment presentation of a play in one act by Robin Arthur, Tim Etchells, Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall, Cathy Naden and Terry O'Connor. Directed by Etchells.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Richard Lowdon; lighting, Nigel Edwards. Opened, reviewed Oct. 7, 2008. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.

Cast

With: Robin Arthur, Claire Marshall.
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