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Around the World in 90 Minutes With Thaddeus Phillips in 17 Border Crossings

Tatiana Mallarino directs Phillips's solo show, making its off-Broadway premiere at New York Theatre Workshop.

Thaddeus Phillips is the writer, star, and scenic designer of 17 Border Crossings.
(© Johanna Austin)

It's a bad sign for a show when the lighting design upstages the star. Such is the case with 17 Border Crossings, in which David Todaro comes up with such consistently inventive lighting effects to support writer-performer Thaddeus Phillips's catalogue of world travels that one may leave the theater remembering the technical aspects more than anything else. In Todaro's hands, a single bar of lights that Phillips moves up and down throughout is manipulated to represent everything from the front of an airplane to that of a vehicle at the US-Mexico border. But Todaro also uses spotlights in imaginative ways, evoking three land bridges from Venezuela to Colombia in one segment, suggesting the forbidden sexiness of Amsterdam's Red Light District in another. It's the sheer economy of means with which Todaro, working with Phillips's words, is able to render whole environments that's most astonishing of all.

A New York Theatre Workshop alumnus who has presented a previous solo show, the 2006 ¡El Conquistador! (also directed by 17 Border Crossings director Tatiana Mallarino), and the 2014 Edgar Allan Poe musical Red-Eye to Havre de Grace with the company, Phillips is not without skills of his own. He's a compelling physical performer, throwing himself into embodying various characters and objects while moving confidently across the NYTW stage. And Phillips rivals no less than Robin Williams in his ability to change accents on a dime to play foreign characters. Whether this performance adds up to anything more than a virtuosic 90-minute acting display, however, is questionable.

Thaddeus Phillips in 17 Border Crossings at New York Theatre Workshop.
(© Johanna Austin)

As the title suggests, 17 Border Crossings is made up of 17 vignettes recounting the crossings of various international borders. Some of them are explicitly autobiographical, as is the case with one section in which he recalls a recent trip to the border of Cúcuta, Colombia, for a rumored Live Aid-style concert featuring Peter Gabriel. In others, Phillips recalls stories he's heard, including that of a Mozambique gardener named Jose Matada who, in 2012, managed to stow himself away on a British Airways flight to London, with tragic consequences. Many others are told in the second person, with Phillips perhaps aiming to universalize some of his experiences. The borders themselves aren't always physical, either: In one of his more poetic anecdotes, Phillips informs us of a "wall of sound" between Catholics and Muslims in the Bosnia and Herzegovina city of Mostar.

The global reach of 17 Border Crossings is admirable, but scope is not the same as depth. Beyond a genuinely informative introduction briefly elucidating the history of the passport, there's barely anything connecting these 17 episodes together other than the fact that Phillips either heard about these stories or experienced them himself. Some of these segments are poignant: A scene in which he recounts a 2005 incident in which an American and a Croatian were both denied entry to Bali from Indonesia thanks to an outdated Indonesian immigration law dictating Croatians aren't allowed to enter the country without a visa quietly devastates, suggesting that discrimination knows no cultural boundaries. Though the subject of borders is certainly on many Americans' minds right now, with the US's own recent travel ban and persistent talk about building a wall on the US-Mexico border, Phillips refuses to let his play lapse into heavy-handed topicality. But he offers so little else to chew on that 17 Border Crossings becomes more noteworthy for what it isn't than for what it actually is. If Phillips has a broader point to make beyond curating a series of dramatized travel experiences, he's not disclosing it to us.

As the vignettes pile up, 17 Border Crossings starts to take on the feel of a glorified photo album — and as with any photo album, unless one is already invested in its creator as a personality, one is likely to come away from this show shrugging one's shoulders in indifference. Despite the fact that the show chronicles multiple travels, the only truly significant trip in 17 Border Crossings is the self-congratulatory one taken by Thaddeus Phillips's own ego.

17 Border Crossings runs through May 12 at New York Theatre Workshop.
(© Johanna Austin)
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