Would Chad Wanzek answer his phone Saturday as he walked around Philadelphia letting strangers control his day? Outlook not so good.As he asked his Mattel Magic 8-Ball if he should return my call, the triangular answer settling through blue-bubble goo, serendipity was on my side.
If it wasn’t fate, then I should probably credit Toys “R” Us for giving me the chance to see the best and worst that Philadelphia’s people could dream up as Wanzek performed his act “The Man Without Any Free Will,” one of many events associated with this year’s Philly Fringe-Live Arts Festival.
As he cupped the Magic 8-Ball in both hands like a wizard’s crystal ball, Wanzek approached strangers, asked them to offer suggestions to direct his will and allowed the iconic toy to decide if he would or wouldn’t commit to the whims of passersby.
“I will put myself in complete control of strangers. It’s up to the turn of the ball,” Wanzek, who considers himself a performance artist and has a M.F.A. in two-dimensional art from Southern Illinois University, said in an interview before his walk around Philly on Sept. 1.
The “turn of the ball” is in surprisingly terrible favor to a possessor that is allowing it to determine his fate. Out of 20 possible answers, 10 are variations
of “yes,” 5 are variations of “no” and 5 are ambiguous. If statistics class wasn’t your bag, think of it this way: only a quarter of the answers are a guarantee
that you’re getting off the hook. Also consider that you can probably count on one hand the number of times that you have enthusiastically replied “yes” to anything suggested by a passing stranger.
“Yeah, I’m worried about what people [will] ask me. I’m hoping people are fairly nice about it. Hopefully I don’t get arrested, but I do plan on committing [to any suggestion] with as much gusto as possible,” Wanzek said.
Will the 8-Ball’s testimony hold up in court? “I don’t know,” he laughed nervously, “it may turn against me.”
The fact that the toy is a recognizable piece of pop art played heavily in Wanzek’s decision to use it in his performance. The 8-Ball represents a game of chance that we kidded about as kids, our beliefs suspended high in the toy closet beside Ouija boards and mood rings. As we walked around the city, the toy was elevated from child’s play to social commentary as it subconsciously highlighted the wants, needs and whims of the citizens of Philadelphia.
The ball led us through the City Hall atrium, where a group of students suggested that he build a relationship with someone in need. As if echoing sentiment common of modern society, the ball replied.
At Rittenhouse, the scene was much lighter. “I think you should get ice cream,” said Cathy Heard, 32.As Wanzek left a Center City coffee shop with ice cream in tow, the cashier, realizing her power, suggested two challenges: keep pace with a passing jogger and propose marriage to a random woman.
“Am I going to jail?” Wanzek asked his round, plastic life coach.”Outlook Good,” it said.
With Mattel-made confidence, he lowered himself onto one knee in front of the first woman he found, and asked her to have his hand in marriage.
“Absolutely. I bet you weren’t expecting that, were you?” she said. Wanzek chirped giddily, but had little time to celebrate his engagement. Before catching her name, a jogger jetted by. Clasping a firm grip on the 8-Ball, he took off behind her. The situation called into question the legality of chasing someone down the street in broad daylight.
“This is where free will would be so nice,” Wanzek huffed, taking deep breaths.
In an apartment building near 30th Street Station, security guard Roger Harris, 56, wondered if hugs were too dangerous in 2007, but suggested that Wanzek shake hands with a stranger in the terminal and wish them a “happy Saturday.”
Wanzek approached a random traveler as a muscular Doberman led an even more muscular police officer around the station platform. As Wanzek slowly extended his hand and a warm greeting, the traveler pulled back and snarled – he couldn’t believe it was meant out of good will. Frustrated, Wanzek asked the ball if he could leave but was denied. As he looked around and felt increasingly encircled by post-9/11 paranoia, he asked the ball again until it freed him of the situation.
“One question I have in my back pocket is ‘Should I quit for the day?’ Why wouldn’t he shake my hand? It’s a perfectly good hand,” he said. But Wanzek shook it off and headed for Drexel’s campus.
We approached a group of students at 32nd and Market streets. “How much money do you have? You should give me all your money,” Dan Griner, 21, a student at Drexel, said. Wanzek reached into his pocket, pulled out $10 and some change, and without hesitation, handed it to the student.
Another member of the group posed a more philosophic question. “Can you develop a free sense of will?” Shelby Reiches, 21, asked.
Surprised, Wanzek shook the ball vigorously as if he were shaking away every bad suggestion. “Signs point to yes,” it said.
Wanzek looked over at me, the weight of each stranger’s suggestion heavy in his eyes. “My performance is over and I’m engaged. This turned out to be a good day.”
Brian James Kirk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.