A play without characters or a traditional plot but with a lot of sociological theory may not seem like obviously compelling theatre. Nevertheless, Cluster Fucked, a show put on by Incomplete Productions currently running in the Toronto Fringe Festival at the Tarragon Theatre Solo Room, does just that, its talented cast taking a smart script and using it to make their audience understand important facts about our world. Namely, the power of Big Data to distort the lives of people in the early 21st century with frightening ease.
The name of this play, we are told by the cast, comes from two sources: “Cluster” is from the term used by polling companies to divide people into sub-populations, groups of people united by certain traits. Environics’ PRIZM5 segmentation system, for instance, divides the Canadian population into 68 distinct clusters, each defined by income, ethnicity, residence and patterns of consumption. The general public can use Environics’ postal code lookup to see which cluster prevails in their local community. “Fucked”, meanwhile, comes from the power that these detailed and far-reaching databases give their owners, including an uncanny ability to manipulate individuals. Lives, as the cast says, are made over into raw data, data is processed knowledge, and the holders of knowledge have power. If this power is not widely known, this is something that Cluster Fucked tries to change.
Written by academic and actor David John Phillips, Cluster Fucked endeavors to explain to its audience some concepts perhaps not widely known. What does it mean, for instance, to form a population cluster? Somewhat amazingly, the show manages to demonstrate this with the four performer/creators – Heather Abrams, Ryan Bannon, Joanna Decc, and Brock Hessel. With clever use of their height and some handy chairs, they not only illustrate how population clusters are formed, but also how arbitrary these clusters can be. The great success of Cluster Fucked, in fact, is its practical presentation. The audience can easily understand the ways in which raw data from an individual describes their identities and predict their future activities.
Cluster Fucked also delights. The four performer/creators all do well, presenting complex ideas with verve. They go beyond mere recitations of data to be funny, or concerned, or sad, an achievement that owes much to the capable script of Phillips. The performers bounce arguments off of each other in dialogue that makes these ideas clear, all conducted on a deceptively simple stage setup that makes perfect backdrop for these exchanges.
If there is no characterization by design, there is drama in anecdotes of different people who escape categorization, movingly told. There is the anonymous man who, in 1982, after learning how medical authorities feared that the AIDS epidemic might enter the general population, realized that he was not considered part of that population. There is a 30-something gay man who used his Mastercard to buy a single ticket for an Off-Broadway performance, wondering if he could possibly have become a monetized commodity. Fitting authentic emotion into this play, about information to be traded and sold, is a real achievement.
If there is a flaw to Cluster Fucked, it lies in the fact that this play speaks to a relatively narrow demographic of people at least somewhat aware of the power and the problems of Big Data. That said, this play does this job wonderfully. Fans of smart and inventive theatre that has important things to say about the world really need to see Cluster Fucked.
- Cluster Fucked is playing until July 15 at the Tarragon Theatre Solo Room. (30 Bridgman Avenue)
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Fringe Club at Scadding Court, and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Be advised that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and latecomers are never admitted. To avoid disappointment, be sure to arrive a few minutes before curtain.
- July 4th at 8:15 pm
- July 6th at 4:45 pm
- July 7th at 6:45 pm
- July 8th at 1:00 pm
- July 10th at 8:30 pm
- July 11th at 10:00 pm
- July 13th at 5:15 pm
- July 15th at 5:45 pm
Photo provided by company.