ArtsEmerson's "17 Border Crossings": Build That Wall?

Thaddeus Phillips in "17 Border Crossings"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

The tagline for the ambitious ArtsEmerson calendar of events, “The World on Stage”, has never been truer than in the case of its current production, 17 Border Crossings. It's a one-person show created, designed and performed by Thaddeus Phillips, amounting to ninety minutes of uninhibited creativity, as he takes us on a round-the-world trip. Phillips' tour-de-farce, now appearing at Emerson's Paramount Center black box theater, sometimes necessitates relating the relatively mundane story behind the smuggling of fried chicken, other times with the more unexpected peculiarities of airline security. This theater artist gave birth to this work before the emergence of the concept of banning immigrants based on their religion or ethnicity, so its title implies relevance that it fails to deliver. For the most part, this is a well-performed comedic show when one might have expected one that was more topical.

This series of vignettes begins with a quotation from Shakespeare's Henry V as Henry speaks on the occasion of St. Crispin's Day about providing passports for anyone wishing to go home from the battlefields in France. Then it's on to trips from Hungary to Serbia by train, Italy to Croatia by ferry, and walking from the U.S. To Mexico, with Phillips playing himself as well as several different customs agents, with only a few set pieces (a small desk, a chair, a set of lights) to help differentiate the magical and very invisible abstract and absurd lines we call international borders. Many are funny, only one is sad. They range from London, Paris, Prague, Belgrade, Colombia, and Holland to crossings as remote as the Amazon rain forest. In each case he is not as impacted as many travelers he meets, as he is traveling as a white American male. His migrations even include one mental one, caused by an encounter with the hallucinogenic Amazonian brew ayahuasca. Even this journey of the mind is played for comic effect. And Phillips by and large nails the accents, the inflections and posturing of the characters he encounters, making for a very enjoyable if slight theatrical experience.

This piece, co-produced by Lucidity Suitcase International (memorable for their production seasons back of Red-eye to Havre de Grace), and previously seen in theaters from Michigan to Hong Kong, is directed by the author's wife and collaborator Tatiana Mallarino, with Lighting by David Todaro, Sound by Robert Kaplowitz and technical work by Spencer Sheridan.

Future musings on the perils of international travel may, unfortunately, prove more serious and provocative, based on political knee-jerk reactions in this country and others, such as France. In the spirit of 17 Border Crossings, maybe each country shouldn't have to maintain and pay for the boundaries they erect. Maybe Mexico should pay for them.

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