Theater / Performance

The Incredibly Dangerous Astonishingly Lucrative and Potentially Completely TRUE Adventures of Barry Seal (FringeArts, 15May15)

What they say it is:

A cinematic hybrid play/concert/installation performance featuring remixed hit music from the 1980s, absurd phone conversations, and an almost-full-size Caddy.

In 2013 theater artist Thaddeus Phillips played the infamous drug smuggler Barry Seal on the MundoFox TV show Alias El Mexicano. What began as an exciting and slightly frustrating job led him down a rabbit hole into the history, mysteries, and conspiracies surrounding Barry Seal, a Louisiana pilot whose thirst for adventure made him one of the most compelling yet largely unknown characters of the 20th century. Phillips collaborates with DJ Mario Cotto and installation artist Jeff Becker to create a cinematic portrait of Seal set in the Salvation Army parking lot in Baton Rogue where Mr. Seal was assassinated in his white Cadillac Fleetwood in 1986.

NEW Clay Says graphic Ernie

Tickets were $25, and instead of hoping for a last-minute markdown, we booked weeks in advance.  The reason?  As mentioned previously on this blog, we’re fans of Thaddeus Phillips—a performer, director, and amazing set designer whose works have impressed us over the course of several years.  I still regard Phillips’ 2012 show, Red Eye To Havre De Grace as one of the premiere theater pieces I’ve ever seen, anywhere.  I also thoroughly enjoyed his piece 17 Border Crossings, as reviewed on this blog in 2014.   After two back-to-back shows, my suspicions were fully confirmed: Phillips is one of the most exciting thespian/directors/creative minds to watch in our region.  Trusting our spidey senses that this next performance would be no different, we corralled some friends, grabbed a pile of tickets (front row, thanks to early action!), and settled in for an exciting show.

Barry Seal follows a similar template to Phillips’ past shows: minimal set design with a few big surprise reveals, unusual visual perspectives, shapeshifting props, a Spartan cast, and an expectation that the audience’s imagination will fill in the blank spaces.  Here, a Salvation Army hobo apartment is perched 20 feet above the stage, creating the impression of a seedy city walkup.  The stage itself is dominated by pieces of a disassembled 1970s automobile (some scenes embellished only by a lone car door and steering wheel, while others utilize the vehicle’s entire frame).   Almost all of the action takes place in either the skyloft apartment or the transforming car, and the audience sees Phillips passing between the two areas in almost every scene, creating the impression of a busy man on the run.  The show’s only other performer is a crazed war vet (Mario Cotto) who doubles as the show’s onstage DJ–an explanation is neither offered nor needed for this oddly comfortable juxtaposition.  Thanks to the frenetic pace and verbosity of the main player, Barry Seal feels like a wild ride, a dark and comic tale that would come off as the ramblings of a burnt-out cocaine-era nutjob—if there weren’t a lingering sensation that something so crazy must be true.

The only problem is, I was never quite sure if it was.

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This element of Barry Seal can break either way, depending how I think about it.  Simplicity and straightforwardness are not values that I require in my art.  I’m an enormous fan of dislocating experiences, and I’m generally most interested in stage performances that attempt more than chronological narrative or historical recreations.  Accordingly, Barry Seal incorporates—and achieves–many things that I tend to love in a show.  The protagonist advances nearly all of the story via one-sided telephone conversations–a risky choice, but one that mostly works. With only the oddball, nearly silent roommate (Cotto) to use as a sounding board, Barry is constantly launching into winding, addled stories stemming from his double life as a government agent/drug smuggler.  It’s funny, and still manages to mostly explain what we, the audience, need to know.  The pacing and frantic rhythm of Barry’s countless conspiratorial phone calls, vibe of secrecy, and pleading with his (never seen) wife create an impression of a discombobulated, bombastic, undeniably glorified 1970’s lifestyle that could only make sense to someone living it.  It’s entirely fun to watch, if admittedly (and intentionally) confusing at times.

But, on the other hand, there’s no denying that the show never made much effort to really clarify Barry Seal’s life as a real person, or even concern itself with basic issues of autobiography and backstory.  Everything one learns about Barry Seal via this show is transmitted through a muddled, narrow-view snapshot that can, at times, be tough to follow and interpret.  I’m not saying the experience of the show was anything less than exhilarating—but there were points where I honestly yearned for another character to appear and provide some balancing exposition, or even some ham-fisted explanation of truth vs. hyperbolic imagination.

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However, the final scene—spoiler alert—when the Salvation Army backdrop (complete with rotating overhead fans) transforms seamlessly into Barry Seal’s narco-trafficking airplane . . . and thereby sums up the show’s underpinning spirt of a man who lived wild, alone, and free . . . this awesome visual moment paid for the price of admission, and oh-so-much more.  Any theatrical event of such breathtaking imagination and high-quality visual caliber will always allow me to forget minor quibbles such as the ones noted above.

See you in the fall, Thaddeus.

NEW Tara Says Graphic

As Clay has stated, both he and I are Thaddeus Phillips fans!

I regret admitting that my favorite part of the show was the final scene.  Maybe I am unfairly judging Thaddeus based on the quality of his last two productions, but I personally felt that Barry Seal needed slightly more workshopping . . . ?  I did not enjoy the narrative structure as much as my partner, Clay.  I found the one-sided phone conversations interesting as an introduction, but as the play continued to rely on this mechanism for the entire show, it lost its effect for me, eventually coming to feel flat and repetitive.  Thaddeus–I can’t help but evaluate this show with a critical eye because I was so lucky to see your previous production of Red Eye to Havre de Grace.  I would like you to evoke more of your fantastic mystical story telling that I know you’re capable of.  Mario Coto was a whole other live person on the stage, but he wasn’t utilized enough.  I wanted to see you to use him as effectively as you were able to do with the role of Poe’s wife—dynamic, beautiful, and frightening–rather than only having him spin records and deliver a scant few lines of dialog.  In other words, you spoiled me with the wife, and raised my expectations for your supporting cast roles.  Even though that character had no speaking lines, she remains a sharp memory in my psyche.  DJ Salvation Army reminds me of an unremarkable uncle or everyday SEPTA rider—just forgettable.

The set and lighting held my interest more than the narrative.  A cut-apart Cadillac occupies the far corners of the stage, and as the story is carried forward the picture of Barry Seal becomes clearer, similar to the reassembling Cadillac.  The car is also an effective ‘inverted foreshadowing’ of Barry’s ultimate fate . . . as the car comes together, its owner’s end is near.

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All this said, I am anxiously awaiting the planned sequel to this show.  See?  I still believe in Thaddeus.  There is NO question that I want more productions from him.  Mr. Phillips is a brilliant theatrical mind– I just didn’t LOVE this particular production. It was good, but he can do better. I definitely look forward to fall’s Fringe Festival follow up to Barry Seal.

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