Created and Performed By Thaddeus Phillips; Directed by Tatiana Mallarino
Off Broadway, Solo Show
Runs through 5.12.19
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street
by Shani R. Friedman on 4.22.19
Thaddeus Phillips in 17 Border Crossings. Photo by Johanna Austin.
BOTTOM LINE: Thaddeus Phillips takes the audience across the globe through a series of eye-opening, funny, and riveting encounters.
For a performance about modern day borders, it may seem odd that Thaddeus Phillips takes the stage in a burst of fog to recite the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. But as he points out, Shakespeare dramatizes the idea that King Henry V invented the passport: "Let him depart; his passport shall be made." Phillips then provides a brief history of this curious document, from the decision by the League of Nations to make French the official language, to the modern use of biometric chips. But this is all just a set-up for the main event—a world tour through the frame of Phillips' own various border crossings.
The first sees “The Passenger” (as Phillips is billed in the playbill) traveling from Hungary to Serbia by train in 1999, when there are sanctions against Serbia. Hilariously impersonating an ill-tempered Hungarian ticket agent whose fly is open, Phillips then races across the stage (the first of many times) to describe how another man, who on a nearly empty train has chosen to join him in his compartment, starts tossing suitcases out the window as the train enters Serbia.
Other crossings are equally funny. When he travels in 1991 from Holland to France via Belgium in an autobus, he is stopped for suspicion of having drugs on his person and subjected to a full cavity search, which he recreates to witty effect, aided by a pair of rubber gloves. Then there’s the time he arrives in Croatia in 1992—because the State Department has emphatically declared that “there is no fighting in this part of Croatia"—and his friend doesn’t show (because of the fighting), leaving him stranded for four days. Seemingly everywhere are the Europop strains of “All That She Wants,” a song that finds him over and over.
Phillips also juxtaposes his own experiences as a first-world tourist against those who make crossings out of desperate attempts to survive and search for a better life. The most poignant story is about a gardener who waits until right before a flight (from Rwanda to London) is about to depart before climbing into the wheel well under the cover of night. And of course, as one would expect in 2019, Mexico is part of the fabric. On a "dental tourism" trip to Ciudad Juárez, Phillips meets Pablo, a food vendor who was once caught and deported by ICE, and is trying to get back to his family in the U.S.
Under Tatiana Mallarino’s breezy direction, 17 Border Crossings gets brilliant support from David Todaro’s lighting and Robert Kaplowitz’s sound. Along with Phillips own ingenious use of his few set pieces, the team deftly crafts interrogation rooms, train cars, the Amazon, tunnels in Gaza, and more with just a moveable bar of lights, a table and chair, and of course that Ace of Base earworm. Even in the stories that are about less compelling events, like the crossing between Austria and Germany by ski lift, Phillips' ability to turn his prosaic props into whatever he needs is always a joy to watch. A gifted mimic who speaks multiple languages, Phillips skillfully transports you to a variety of historical moments, reminding us that there is always a border issue happening somewhere around the world. Sure, 17 Border Crossings will no doubt inspire wanderlust. But hopefully it will also encourage compassion for those whose travels are fraught and far from over, even when they finally land.
(17 Border Crossings plays at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, through May 12, 2019. The running time is 100 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2 and 7. Tickets are $49 and are available at nytw.org.)
17 Border Crossings is created and performed by Thaddeus Phillips. Directed by Tatiana Mallarino. Set Design by Thaddeus Phillips. Lighting Design by David Todaro. Sound Design by Robert Kaplowitz. Dramaturg is Patrick Kealey. Stage Manager is Mallory Hewell.