Thaddeus Phillips in El Conquistador!
(© Joan Marcus)
Thaddeus Phillips in El Conquistador!
(© Joan Marcus)
If ever a theater piece could be called both cute and astute, it's El Conquistador!, which is now being performed in Spanish with English subtitles at New York Theatre Workshop. Explaining why it's cute is relatively simple: That has a good deal to do with the show's star and co-author Thaddeus Phillips, the only live actor in this creative, multi-media enterprise. He's utterly charming in the central role of a Colombian country bumpkin called Polonio, who gets a job at a doorman in Bogota; moreover, towards the show's end he doubles (actually quaduples) as a handful of the nutcase tenants in his building, not so subtly named the New World.

Explaining why El Conquistador! is astute takes a bit more effort, since what seems at first glance to be merely an amusing spoof of that increasingly international phenomenon the "telenovela" is actually more complex. Phillips and his writing collaborators, Tatiana Mallarino (who also directed) and Victor Mallarino (who plays a crazed, possibly homicidal character named Didier on tape), are not just sending up this art form, they're commenting on the telenovela as a metaphor for the erosion of South American society.

The ingenious way El Conquistador! works is that Polonio performs his duties in front of a large screen upon which various views of his working environment are projected. Occasionally, he races behind the screen to greet someone or maybe accept a package; then the doorman is seen on the screen, continuing in videotaped action. These transitions are made with amazing smoothness. (You'll want to watch for one particular moment when the actor puts on his jacket during a switch from live action to film; it's so deft, you almost don't notice it.)

Often, though, we get close-ups of certain New World residents played on screen by such famous Colombian telenovela stars as Christina Campuzano, Luis Fernando Hoyos, Helena Mallarino, and Antonio Sanint. They're constantly contacting Polonio on the intercom for any number of self-involved reasons. Herein lies the drama and even the melodrama of Phillips' tale. The stay-at-homes make dunning requests that, in a couple of instances, begin to tie together ominously -- although the residents seem to be in pursuit of nothing more consequential than a Diet Coke or a pack of cigarettes that Polonio is required to put in the elevator and send up. Clues to the characters' interconnections and to Polonio's past are positioned along the way like markers that, when followed, can lead someone out of a maze.

El Conquistador! is performed without intermission, and there's the sense that its 100 minutes could be trimmed without losing the play's impact and sly appeal. An air of sketch humor hovers over the enterprise, and it's always risky to extend sketches beyond their ideal length. What absolutely doesn't need trimming is the extended denouement, in which the tenants and Polonio's long-lost brother venture into the lobby with sundry nefarious and less nefarious intentions. Here, the script works up cases of mistaken identity and sudden deaths (or are they?) that mock the telenovela form and its clichés. During this final sequence, Phillips is repeatedly required to trot behind the screen and complete a series of quick changes. The fast-paced wind-up will divert patrons who know nothing of telenovelas and are barely even conversant with American soap operas.

El Conquistador! works largely because both Phillips and Polonio are engaging in their basic needs. (You can trace the character back to figures like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.) The play's title refer to Christopher Columbus, as whom Didier dresses up at one point; it also refers to Polonio and the way in which he realizes, if he does, his dream of creating a telenovela and performing in it. Indeed, the show's prime achievement is how skillfully it suggests that the manner in which contemporary life is evolving means we're all starring in our own fame-obsessed telenovelas.