Thaddeus Phillips turns a minimalist set into a train, a chairlift and other modes of transport in "17 Border Crossings."
In more than 20 years of traveling to research or perform his shows around the world, Thaddeus Phillips has racked up his share of stories. “Having officials plant cocaine in your suitcase in Colombia — I really liked that one,” Phillips says with a heavy dose of sarcasm. “Witnessing severe smuggling happen, stuff getting thrown out of trains. Cuba has all these internal borders, so trying to navigate those is an experience.”
Whether humorous at the time or only in retrospect, those scenes of mishap while crossing one border after another have piled up like outtakes from a film. With his latest piece, “17 Border Crossings,” Phillips compiles those stories into one piece that serves as a culmination of his work to date. The show comprises 17 short scenes, each one recounting a single incident with its own particular style.
“The Serbian scene will feel like an Emir Kusturica film,” Phillips says, citing the director of “Underground” and “Time of the Gypsies.” He continues, “The Cuba scene will feel like a Tropicana floor show. They each have their own color and flavor that suits the countries.”
For his latest one-man show Phillips is collaborating with his mentor, U.K. theater artist Patrick Kealy, as well as director Rebecca Wright of Philly theater company Applied Mechanics and Tony Award-winning sound designer Robert Kaplowitz. As always, Phillips creates multiple scenes and environments from extremely minimal elements – in this case, a desk and a fluorescent light bar, which become a train, a ferry or a chairlift at various moments.
“It starts off as a kind of classical solo monologue show where it’s just a dude — which is me — at a desk,” Phillips explains. “But then it quickly becomes something much more complicated. We end up having a lot without actually having anything, which is a cool metaphor for a border, since they don’t actually exist. We just make them up.”
That applies for psychological borders as well as physical ones, as the show draws out. While not being explicitly political, there are of course political implications to how each of these countries plays gatekeeper, with the specters of famous border transgressors like Edward Snowden hovering nearby.
“We’re playing with the fact that there are similarities between crossing all kinds of borders,” Phillips says. “There’s a sense of fear and guilt, even though you’re not guilty of anything. There’s also a similarity between the officials in all these different countries, while you can also learn a lot about how different places are based on how they deal with their borders. Some places are really lax and kind of goofy [while] other places are overly serious, so it’s a fun way to look into different countries.”