There’s an old logic puzzle about a farmer trying to get a wolf, a chicken, and a pile of corn across the river, but the farmer can only take two at a time in his boat. Leaving the wrong combination of items alone will end in something getting eaten. So in what order does he take them?
I’ll pose a more modern question: You’re trying to get your wallet, your car keys, and your iPhone across town, but you can only carry one at a time. The rest you have to leave on the street. In what order do you take them to avoid…
You know what, it doesn’t matter. The answer is you take your iPhone, of course, and throw everything else in the river if that’s what’s required. Then in the Lyft home (that you call from your iPhone) you’ll have ordered a new wallet and keys, cancelled your credit cards, and told all your friends about your terrible day on Facebook, all with time left over to find a date on Tinder and catch up on the news with Twitter.
Face it: Everything in your pocket is just taking up space if it isn’t an iPhone.
That dynamic is center stage in Phantom Limb at the 2018 Capital Fringe Festival. Phantom Limb takes us through the screen-oriented, autobiographical journey of Joseph Price. The one-man act is told through a series of vignettes that span two years (or so) of Price’s life.
closes July 29, 2018
Details and tickets
From the opening scene – the moment of Price’s very first iPhone purchase – we’re treated to an inside-look at Price’s life, loves, and obsessions. We see him date (online), play (online), reconnect with childhood friends (online), and engage in political discourse with those same friends (ugh… online).
All of this is told through the backdrop of the 2016 election. What we discover is that for Price, like a lot of us, the iPhone delivers a relentless cycle of distress and distraction.
The distress comes from everything Trump-related on Twitter, alongside a devolving social media stream that uncovers a wide gulf between our narrator and a childhood friend. Price becomes troll-obsessed, trying everything to change this friend’s mind about Trump and waging Internet warfare against the President’s supporters.
When this becomes too much to endure, however, Price turns to distraction. This comes primarily in the form of celebrity Corgis and the online fantasy card game, Hearthstone.
What’s great about Phantom Limb is that it’s delivered in two mediums: Through Price, as a one-man act, but also through Price’s iPhone. A rolling slideshow of images is projected on the wall in front of the audience, showing us everything from Price’s favorite Corgis to his latest Hearthstone victory.
It’s a wonderful effect. And I would say the projection is distracting, but I think that’s half the point. Like Price, the audience is forced to split its attention between the real live entertainer in front of us and the allure of a screen.
Full confession: I mostly watched the screen. I could chalk it up to sitting directly in front of the screen, but I know better.
All told, there’s some very funny material. In one scene, Jim recounts feelings of shame when his Android-delivered text messages appear blue on friend’s iPhones, as opposed to appearing green if Jim had an iPhone himself. It’s a largely meaningless observation that’s relatable and silly in the best way.
Unfortunately, that meaninglessness is at the core of my disappointment with my show. Phantom Limb‘s appeal effectively rests (and I do mean rests) on a shared reality with the audience. The play shouts “hey, online trolls are a thing! People like to look at animals online! And games are super addictive!”
While all of this is true, Phantom Limb ignores an emotional third rail that is just pulsing with energy. Price is silly and charming, but the base value of this story isn’t silly or charming. It’s the anger and detachment that results from our collective screen addiction. Price’s story nods in this direction, but never really commits.
Phantom Limb is fundamentally a story about missed connections with loved ones and our repeated failure to understand one another as human beings when forced to communicate through a flawed medium like Facebook.
I’m not saying the play shouldn’t have humor. It’s a comedy, and that foundation is just fine. But what we get instead of a story with purpose is pictures of Corgis. Adorable, adorable Corgis.
Joseph Price knows how to tell a good story, I learned from a little research. He’s told excellent stories through mediums like The Moth, Story District and Speakeasy DC. So he knows well that a good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Phantom Limb feels more like the beginning, middle, and end… of the middle. There’s just something missing. That doesn’t make it a bad story. It just isn’t Price’s best.
All that said, the audience was laughing, at times rather loudly, and maybe there’s a bigger picture that I’m missing. Corgis and caustic Twitter feeds are a slice of something we all share in our day-to-day. And because we can all find Corgi pictures on our own – enjoy them on our own – we don’t need “Phantom Limb” to bring them to us. Yet there we all sat – real present human beings – enjoying Corgi pictures live, in person, together.
Making that happen in today’s screen obsessed world is a miracle Price can celebrate.