What they say it is:
Innovative theater director Thaddeus Phillips (creator of Red-Eye to Havre De Grace, Whale Optics, ¡El Conquistador!) steps back onstage for the World Premiere of 17 BORDER CROSSINGS, a new theatrical work that takes audiences to the frontiers of Egypt, Bosnia, Cuba, Brazil, Morocco, Colombia, Austria, Bali, Czech Republic, Israel, Jordan, Serbia, Croatia, Italy and Mexico. Based on Phillip’s actual border crossing experiences, 17 BORDER CROSSINGS is a deceptively simple solo work that weaves these accounts into a dramatic, visual and surreal examination of imaginary lines, arbitrary passports and curious customs.
The performance style begins as a classic monologue told from a desk and chair, but quickly morphs into a physical work that highlights Phillips’ unique theatrical aesthetic that fuses global ideas, transformative staging, surprising images and extreme playfulness. The performance style draws inspiration from stand-up comedy, the Balkan films of Emir Kustarica, the floor shows of the Tropicana in Havana, musicals about Austria, cheap magic, Native myths from the Amazon jungle and Chilli Relleno recipes.
Allow me to begin by saying that I am so incredibly glad we spotted this item in the Philly Funsavers Guide. The lead creator and performer of 17 Border Crossings, Thaddeus Phillips, was the primary creative force between our shared all-time favorite Fringe/Arts event, Red Eye to Havre De Grace. As soon as I read association with that previous (truly epic) show, I knew we needed to attend his latest work. We were NOT disappointed.
Mr. Phillips works in a landscape of dark dreams, a place where the everyday and actual mix with aggressively surreal storytelling. He’s not afraid to turn a narrative on it’s head, to make the audience live inside HIS vision, or to pack a wide range of complex ideas into a single scene or show. In his previous show Red Eye, the story was grounded in the life of Edgar Allen Poe, ranging widely across the author’s disturbed inner soul and the imagined lives of the people around him. Here, 17 Border Crossings deals with the frightening, ironic, and occasionally humorous elements of international travel, all of these blending together in a stew of surrealist non-linearity. The show leaps through time and space, hauling the audience along on journeys both amazing and uncomfortable. However, for all the veering turns, the show never becomes difficult to follow–rather, it’s as though we’ve been invited into someone’s private cache of tumbling memories, become witnesses to a worldly life held together by some common themes. It’s an awesome, ambitious show, and so successfully entertaining that I never wanted it to end.
Many of the 17 narratives seemed to be based on the author’s own experiences. The stories are so detailed, so personal, and so honest that it is hard to imagine these 17 escapades are anything but true; if not, Mr. Phillips is a masterful deceiver, capable of verisimilitude to an unmatched degree. We follow Mr. Phillips on a ferry boat ride from Italy to Croatia, feeling his nervous fear as he travels–eerily alone and against the advice of transit personnel–into a potential warzone. We watch the narrator navigate miles of Kafkaesque border gates on his way to Jordan from Israel. We see him pay bribes to hostile authorities around the world and beg a Cuban official to forgo the SOP passport stamp on his USA-tied documents. And in one of the more surprising turn of events, we watch our protagonist ingest hallucinajenic Yaje with a shaman in the border-free amazonian jungle. And then warp seamlessly to another border crossing across time and space. Our Town, this is not. It’s a million times more interesting.
After only a few scenes, one realizes that 17 Border Crossings is discussing both insanity and bravery, begetting a glimpse of a traveler who risks his safety and freedom in the face of repressive lunatic authority. The border guards in New Jersey are no more sensible than the corrupt passport checkers in an eastern bloc nation. The potential ally (offering you company when you’re sleeping on a park bench) could turn out to be a certifiable psychopath. War and danger rage all around you, and yet you walk on, challenging the world to let you pass. When you step back and look at the individual stories as a whole, the show’s spirit is akin to a precarious raft of cynical humor that is barely stays afloat in a dark, swirling sea of reality and fear. There were many hilarious nuggets of irony and joy in the border crossings, but the show’s most honest observations deal with the stupidity of human conflicts, and ridiculousness of ‘international boundaries’ that seem so absurd–so fabricated and laughable, even–when examined at close range. The narrator–never clearly identified as Thaddeus Phillips or perhaps someone imagined–is a fly on the wall to the human condition. Whether locked in an interrogation room or following the tragic misadventures of a man stowing away in the wheel-well of a jet airliner, 17 Border Crossings is a lament for humanity. It’s funny, but it’s pretty sad in a lot of ways, too. It doesn’t have to be this way. Or perhaps that’s what’s so heavy about it–maybe we can’t help it.
I’m going to let Tara talk about all the amazing theatrics and acting in this show; I could go on for pages. Suffice it to say, I will attend any creative event that Mr. Phillips wishes to put out there; he’s a certifiable genius of the stage and certainly a name worth watching. His sheer ability to derive towering imaginative power from simple stage props and his own imaginaton are worth the price of admission alone. I eagerly await the next journey.
I do recognize the naivete of my following sentiment, but as an American citizen-living my whole life in a country that is quite large and allows unhindered passage between states–I had thought little about national borders and their implications until I was well into my college years. Only after i had become aware of issues concerning immigration, terrorism, power, wealth, privilege and “entitlement” programs did I become aware of the lines drawn to separate areas and people. Mr. Phillips’ play is a reminder of the issues with borders and humanity. Above, Clay has summarized the theme of play very eloquently, and i can barely add anything to his description.
Mr. Phillips has again mesmerized us with his ability to take seemingly simple stage design (a chair, desk and movable rack of lighting) and expanded it’s form and utilization to create repeated moments of visual interest. He applies the same technique to his story telling. His effective use of accents and language, a brief dance number, and sincere moments of humanity and sadness laced with bits of wry humor–he draws you in each moment of his performance. The humor, thankfully, lightens an otherwise dark mood–I especially liked Ace of Base as a theme song running throughout the show to exemplify the time period of the action, and the scene about a certain fast food taking a very odd trip across international borders. You have no time to wonder when intermission is coming; when the show is complete, you are sated but wishing for more.
Do you value a talented story teller? Are you willing to spend you evening and money being entertained by an extremely talented live human being who utilizes the most basic (though incredibly effective and creative) means at his disposable– lighting, his voice and dance? If the answer is yes, please buy a ticket for any Thaddeus Phillips production!