What a very strange thing Five Encounters On A Site Called Craigslist is, from its somewhat bizarre title to its underwhelming conclusion. I’m really not sure what the point of it is other than to be thoroughly annoying and a piece of navel gazing introspection that just comes across as narcissistic. As you will gather, I’m not a fan.
Let’s get some of the factual stuff out of the way – it won’t take long. The exhibit (I can’t call it a show or a play) is a one man piece by the artist Sam Ward otherwise known as one half of the group Yes Yes No No. The structural support is in the title (Craigslist is an American classified advertisements website with sections devoted to jobs, housing, for sale, items wanted, etc. and most relevant here sexual encounters) but the actual purpose seems to be to examine psychologist Arthur Aron’s “36 Questions” which lead to enhanced intimacy. This is done through a process of “extreme audience interaction”.
Ward’s first request is that the audience remove their shoes as a way of making them feel more relaxed. He explains (or gets an audience member to explain) what Craigslist is and then proceeds to dispassionately narrate the first of the five encounters he has had with other men. This is not short on detail and certainly ensures that the piece is not for family viewing. Meanwhile a person he has plucked from the audience is put in front of a microphone and invited to peel a carrot, squeeze water out of a sponge and rub a pair of underpants on the microphone. She then is asked to eat the carrot. I’m not sure how the audience felt but I was baffled as the audience member’s required actions seemed to have nothing to do with what Ward was narrating about his intimate encounter – well, OK, I could make a case for the carrot consumption!
The concept of the 36 questions is then introduced and so we proceed with examining the increasingly intense and personal nature of Aron’s list while listening to the continuing exploits of Ward and his intimate, yet somehow, distanced, encounters with his hook ups. Each question/narration uses members of the audience to illustrate. There is even a middle section where everyone in the audience participates by writing an answer to one of the questions. The show literally stops for a full five minutes while people do so – you can safely fast forward through this, you won’t be missing anything. I’m guessing this is an attempt to get the audience to fully interact with each other in order to make the point…but there you’ve got me. Whatever the point is, it clearly doesn’t work when observing at a distance a recording of something which happened years ago. Also please be advised that you’re probably best to wear headphones as the sound is somewhat muddy to say the least.
While Ward has some engaging traits as a performer the self-deprecating personality on display, whether genuine or adopted, all seems very low energy and rather muted. There certainly doesn’t seem to be much joy in his encounters, it is all rather random and mechanical, but he continues to expose himself for our consideration. At one point he is not only totally baring his soul but also his body; again, to what purpose I cannot fathom, it just comes across as a rather silly act of exhibitionism.
Now, I’ve no doubt that my reaction probably says more about me than about Ward and other critical reviews I’ve had a look at certainly see things differently and are full of praise. Maybe it was all very different if you were there in person. However, I’m trying to assess online theatre, not an online therapy session. I was struck by this quote from Yes Yes No No’s mission statement: “Some people call our work theatre. Some people don’t”. I’m afraid I’m definitely in the latter category. For me it was all a bit too “Emperor’s New Clothes” and if you think about that particular narrative, I don’t think the analogy could be any more appropriate.
Five Encounters On A Site Called Craigslist can be accessed via Vimeo. Click here
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