Thaddeus Phillips' considers world travel in a collection of honest vignettes.
Actually, it’s not that easy. As of 2016, the world is divided into 196 official countries, their borders an outward and visible sign of paranoia and suspicion, their border-crossings a bad dream of varying degrees. But bad trips make good stories. Thaddeus Phillips distilled his interrupted journeys into “17 Border Crossings,” which recently played at this year’s RIAF.
Phillips is the author, actor, and unnamed hero of this performance art piece; Tatiana Mallarino is the deft director. Phillips’ one-man show plops you down in the no man’s lands between assorted polities — airports, ferries, border checkpoints and the like. (He tells his tales in a third-person narrative. “He” becomes “You.”) His vignettes have a consistent theme: Getting from here to there. Or not.
Phillips’ unnamed “You” is pushed, filed, stamped, debriefed, indexed and numbered around the world. In Paris, France, You get a cavity search. In Newark, New Jersey, You get to wait in an ugly room. Somewhere in the Balkans, You’re stuck on a wharf for three days. With nothing to listen to but the latest hit from Ace of Base endlessly cycling on the radio.
And so it goes.
The vignettes play out like a series of travel-related anxiety dreams. Phillips experiences 17 Kafkaesque encounters with bureaucrats, language barriers and the loss of identity. He usually plays these nightmares for laughs. And laughter is what he gets.
Phillips’ deadpan delivery reminds me of Bob Odenkirk of “Better Call Saul” and “Mr. Show” fame. He delivers a drily comic performance, adroitly avoiding the rock of wackiness and the whirlpool of rage. He brings his odd Odyssey to life with minimal props—just a chair, a table and a long row of lights. Imagination turns them into the flashing lights of an immigration truck, an X-Ray machine … or anything.
This inventive performer combines physical comedy with a keen ear for language. Phillips may not know actually know the various languages, but he’s phonetically absorbed enough phrases to convince you he’s a Serbian, French, Columbian, Croatian, or Balinese bureaucrat, as the case may be. It’s a small world after all. A small world of jerks.
And, yes, these pencil pushers, body scanners and scam artists give our unnamed hero (aka “You”) a hard time. But that’s why it’s funny. “Everything went perfectly” is not a recipe for comedy.
But, in the era of PC on steroids, it can be a recipe for disaster. Phillips runs the risk of being name-shamed as the White Guy Who Complains About Foreign Airports. Phillips knows there are far worse trips than his. He makes sure you know it too.
His kid might cry, “Are we there yet?” on a long boat ride. That’s nothing compared to a Syrian girl whose journey barely begins when she reaches Europe. Or a Mexican immigrant, doing a broken field run at the border. Or a desperate man who climbed into a plane’s wheel well—and leaves the London cops wondering exactly how his frozen corpse smashed into an East End street. Or Gazans smuggling in KFC through tiny tunnels on skateboards.
In these glimpses, Phillips doesn’t go for laughs. Without these sad-making side trips, it might’ve been “15 Border Crossings.” (The audience even prematurely applauded at one point after what felt like a natural finale.) Yes, the tragic notes clash with the Kafkaesque comedy. Yes, a tighter focus on “You” would’ve made for a slicker structure. But editing out the more desperate wanderers would be false.
Sometimes honesty is messy.