17 Border Crossings

April 27, 2017

in Performance Art, Plays

Play, Performance
Creation, production design and performance
by Thaddeus Phillips

Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Paramount Center
April 19-29, 2017

Thaddeus Phillips in '17 Border Crossings'

Thaddeus Phillips
in “17 Border Crossings”
Courtesy of ArtsEmerson

A brilliantly written and delivered, and very inventively staged, one-man show about going across international boundaries.

Who knew that a piece put together on a single, relatively simple, theme like this could be so darn entertaining?

In its roughly ninety minutes, solo performer Thaddeus Phillips takes us on an incredible journey, motivated at each turn by the experience and idea of crossing a different border. He does it with such inventiveness, humor and poignancy that each experience is completely distinctive.

Embodying both the traveler and the customs officers, Phillips transforms before one’s eyes into a Serbian, a Croat, a Mexican, an American, a Frenchman, an Italian, a Jordanian, and a bunch more, all with convincing accents and dispositions, completely amusing and compelling. It seems as though what he’s rattling away in whatever language is authentic – I can’t vouch for the Serbian but the French, Spanish and Italian all are actual words from those languages – pretty amazingly done.

The staging is so creative and varied that it’s hard to imagine that it’s done so economically, with relatively few props and lights. A table turned on its side becomes a chairlift that carries Phillips’ character from Austria to Germany. A light bar perched mid-stage is outfitted with flashers at either end to simulate the wings of a jet. Each gesture of the staging is witty and brilliant and they unwind so unpredictably that one is always taken unawares.

Much of the show is hilarious, but there are also poignant moments. The account of an Angolan trying to hide in the well of a jet’s landing gear as it takes off is a case in point.

There is clearly a political subtext to the show, but it is conveyed so artfully and with such subtlety that the impact is oblique and powerful. The final scene concerns a guy who is making numerous inventive attempts to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. Phillips references the currently proposed wall, the outrageousness of that boundary exhibited with dramatic deftness and persuasiveness.

Phillips’ talents as an actor are significant. At one point, after offering an initial monologue at a desk with coat and well-combed hair, he launches into a portrayal of crossing the Serbian border and musses his hair and flops his jacket and literally becomes the schlumpy, corrupt Serbian border agent.

His accounts of the various border agents are distinctive and brilliant, whether they be Serbian, Israeli, Italian or Mexican. Some of the routines go on for enough time to play out a long gag. The description of walking a kilometer at a time between stations at the Jordanian border, or the account of eating endless chiles rellenos in Mexico while encountering the Mexican pressing his wits against the American border agents are very funny and persuasive.

There is also a wonderful account of being in Brazil and taking the hallucinogenic potion ayahuasca and going on a completely different kind of trip.

This is theatrical magic pulled off with incredible agility and economy. In some ways, the raconteur part that opens and closes the show remind one of the late Spaulding Gray – ironic, whimsical, honest, revelatory. In addition to that, Phillips offers a whole array of witty impersonations and dramatizations which fill out and bring the narrative to life.

– BADMan

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