What they say it is:
“My personal experiences, along with those of other performers on the TV show Alias El Mexicano, are combined to create a stage work in a TV style, about real actors trying to play real people and their aliases on a fake TV show somewhat based on reality.” Thaddeus Phillips, director
Go back to the 1980s with the infamous American drug runner Barry Seal, the Colombian drug lords, the CIA agents, and the fixers via the actors who play them on a modern day TV show. A theatrical adventure that exists between myth and history, reality and make-believe, get set for another mind-bending meld of stage design, action, and storytelling from director–performer Thaddeus Phillips. Journey through the “War on Drugs” by way of a television production soundstage—replete with the lighting, booms, cranes, cameras, sets, and props that seek to recreate the “reality” of the past.
ALIAS ELLIS MACKENZIE follows the potentially real adventures of the American pilot Barry Seal—drug runner, informant, and Iran-Contra Affair player— and his relationship with Colombian drug lords, nefarious co-pilots, clandestine runways, his family, the DEA, FBI, CIA, and three US presidents.
We were really burning the candle at both ends this September; we typically try to take a vacation in autumn to avoid the summertime crowds and accommodate our work schedules. This year was no different, but our schedule meant either missing a few great Fringe shows (Swamp Is On was this year’s regrettable fail), or squeezing all the shows we want to see into a highly compressed timeline. Add into the mix a friend’s September wedding, the Popepocalypse shutting down Philadelphia in September . . . and our month was guaranteed to be insane.
Nevertheless, we always make time for Thaddeus Phillips—one of our favorite directors working in the Philadelphia region. We’ve spent significant time discussing his works in the past, so rather than rehash, the interested reader can review our thoughts here, here, and here:
Red-Eye (2012): http://tinyurl.com/np4o9tn
17 Border Crossings (2013): http://tinyurl.com/qfr3l94
The Incredibly Dangerous . . . Barry Seal (2015): http://tinyurl.com/oy5tqoh
This latest show, Alias Ellis Mackenzie, is the promised prequel to spring’s Barry Seal, also by Thaddeus. The ‘first’ play presented the last days of the CIA informant/drug smuggler as he resided in a halfway house (remanded to custody by court order) and struggling to keep all of his confusingly-juggled balls (cocaine dealers, police, and family) in the air. This new stage show offered a run-through of the events leading up to his confinement, but with a twist—the entire show was framed as a television-documentary-in-progress, and presented with a completely jumbled timeline. Got it straight, yet? The debut of Barry Seal, which came first, was the end of the narrative, and the second show, Alias, is the beginning of the story, but it’s all shuffled and out of order. Make sense?
In fact, Mr. Phillips directorial decision does make a kind of sense, considering the subject matter is a wily, fast-talking con-man who plays both sides of the South American cocaine trade in a high-stakes game of Who’s On First. When a bust lands him in legal trouble, we see Barry Seal swing a deal with the feds to provide information on Pablo Escobar’s smuggling ring. Meanwhile, Mr. Seal is also delivering cocaine into the USA via fly-by-night prop plane adventure—right under the government’s own nose. Thaddeus’ portrayal of Seal is of a shifty, sometimes goofy, never-quite-for-real-real hustler, someone who genuinely means what he says, but has no problem saying a lot of things to a wide range of people. Therefore, I can see the reasoning for staging Alias as a discombobulated mess of imagery and time—the protagonist’s own life was probably a confusing place to live, particularly as the stakes rose higher and higher.
Reflecting on the show, there was plenty to like here, and I may have more fondness for it in retrospect than I did at the time. On its face, Barry Seal’s life was unarguably amazing, but really not the world’s most complicated story. A guy smuggles drugs, he eventually gets busted, same guy keeps smuggling drugs but also turns informant, his loyalties become unclear, he ends up in a halfway house–and then someone eventually kills him (likely a cartel-related incident, but who knows) after he gives too-public statements detailing his colorful history. Mr. Phillips takes what might have felt like ‘just another drug-running story’ and remakes it into a show full of smoke and mirrors, taking us inside Seal’s own headspace where one minute he’s negotiating for his life with Escobar, and the next, making payphone calls to the wife and kids. Watching Alias is like being dropped into the restless, confused dreams of a spirited criminal who can’t quite break his dirty habits, but genuinely wants to be a good person.
What didn’t quite work for me was the second-layer framing device of the show-within-a-show. Alias, as staged before the audience, includes a roving crew of directors, stage managers, and lighting—and frequent stops in the action. When the opening scene was interrupted by cast members charging in to shout “Cut! Next scene! Move the props!”, Alias clearly established the show’s defining meta-theme of ‘you’re watching fake actors and fictional directors make something imaginary to watch’. Unfortunately, for my tastes, the interruptions happened far too often and went on far too long. The breaks did create an interesting, non-traditional way to affect prop changes (stage hands and cameramen were constant features of the show, tirelessly reframing the scenes while we, the audience, look on) but there were so many quick cuts and time-changes that a significant portion of the night was really just watching turnover between action. I do think that the director intended these effects—his other works have featured interesting forms of prop manipulation and often challenge the traditional audience/actor barrier. And, after all, these are the elements that have led us to love Mr. Phillip’s shows. I suppose I just didn’t enjoy Alias’ unrelentingly staccato beat, since I never really got to sink into the characters or the story. Mostly, I just found myself getting tired of waiting for a scene to begin, or trying to put together what part of the story was happening when. Put another way, I like everything this show was doing . . . in concept. The execution, however, felt frequently choppy, sometimes trying, or at worst, a bit boring.
Alias Ellis Mackenzie is an indubitably ambitious piece of theater that deserves notice for its bravely unique approach to an otherwise-linear narrative, and for successfully synthesizing so many bold ideas into a (reasonably) coherent final product. Leaving the theater, Tara and I agreed that if one steps back and considers the rough outlines of the story in diluted form, the show’s approach makes a lot more sense—Mr. Phillips needed to exercise some very creative directorial hooks to remake Barry Seal’s tale into something beyond a heard-it-before, rise-and-fall-of-a-smuggler sort of story. And Alias is good fun in several ways. But it was also a bit short on one crucial element of theatrical entertainment—delicious storytelling escapism without so many interruptions.