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Thaddeus Phillips hails from Denver, but it's fair to say he's a citizen of the world.
His work takes you to places. Under the auspices of his theater company, Lucidity Suitcase International, Phillips has become a deft travel monologist, his stage projects feeding into his journeys and vice versa. In 2002, he visited Morocco to learn Arabic and study terrorism and tourism for a work called The Earth's Sharp Edge; a year later, he traveled to the Amazon region, where he studied subways built around Aztec ruins for a piece called The Melting Bridge. During a fruitful 20-year period, when he wasn't traveling for research, he was studying abroad, learning alternative theater techniques in Prague.
"For a good chunk of time in the late 1990s, I was literally living out of a suitcase," he says.
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Lately, his works tend to be more about the travel process than the destinations — obsessive explorations into the nuts and bolts of transport. For his newest piece, Red-Eye to Havre to Grace, a self-described "action-opera" set during a lecture tour in the last week of Edgar Allen Poe's life, he has said the work is informed by 19th-century train routes. He's currently developing Flamingo/Winnebago, an American road-trip odyssey punctuated by discombobulated voices of GPS navigators, airline pilots, and rental car agents.
But in terms of sheer scope and ambition, the definitive Thaddeus Phillips travelogue is probably 17 Border Crossings, a 2011 piece that enjoys its Florida premiere this weekend only at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse. Having earned comparisons to the late, great Spalding Gray, what begins as an archetypal monologue — a man, a table, a chair, and our collective imagination — transforms into a procession of 17 miniplays that deal with crossing borders between nations. The plays find Phillips traversing Tunisia, Bosnia, Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, Croatia, Bali, Hungary, Israel, Jordan, Serbia, Morocco, Angola, Slovenia, and Mexico, charting the peculiar customs of border security in the post-cold war, and then post-9/11, world.
The result is, in a way, a culmination of its writer's decades of travel experiences.
"My theatrical work is mostly based on travel, and in creating a new work, usually a story is developed, along with characters, design concepts, et cetera," he says. "But often, there would be fantastic stories — outtakes, if you will — that happened during these travels that never made it into one of our shows."
Those tales formed the basis of 17 Border Crossings. "I started gathering all these stories and found that most of them were centered around a border crossing," he says. "So I began to specifically look for stories around border crossings, editing out all parts that did not fit this specific idea. That is how the piece was born."
Once he had his raw material — the stories range from a two-minute piece about a flight from Morocco to Colombia to a 20-minute bit on a Hungary-to-Serbia train crossing — the next challenge was structuring the piece.
Each miniplay has its own identity, its palette of tones and textures changing from an Austrian musical to an Amazonian myth to a Havana floor show to an homage to Serbian film director Emir Kusturica. One piece was inspired by his experience at a traditional Wayang Kulit shadow puppet theater in Bali, in which a single puppeteer worked a 12-hour play, backed by a full gamelan, or Indonesian musical ensemble. In the end, not all of the plays are based on his own experiences.
"The structure was very complicated, since there is no story to guide the show," Phillips says. "It was a very tricky puzzle to work out to organize the order of each crossing to abstractly make a structure that flows and takes the audience on the most lucid journey possible."
Phillips got feedback from early audiences and an off-Broadway producer and streamlined the work over time. "It was a long process, but now we have found a very nice flow," he says.
Phillips describes the staging of the piece as "deceptively simple" and integral to his theme. In addition to the table and chair, there is a bar of movable lights that suggest whatever border he's crossing. "The combination of fluorescent lights and other practical lights helped to create a surreal design that changes quickly and evokes different places and sensations but in a very simple manner," he says.
"These lights serve as a great metaphor for what borders are — arbitrary lines drawn in sand," he adds. "By juxtaposing quite varied crossings back to back, patterns and contradictions emerge that expose the oddity of what a border is and the invented protocol in passing it."
Phillips may be a nontraditional playwright, but his approach inevitably returns, somehow, to the Bard. He launched his theater career back in the mid-'90s with puppet versions of King Lear and The Tempest, and journeying full circle, 17 Border Crossings opens in 16th-century England, with a lengthy soliloquy from Shakespeare's Henry V on the invention of the passport: "Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host/That he which hath no stomach to this fight/Let him depart; his passport shall be made/And crowns for convoy put into his purse."
For the following 90 minutes, let Phillips depart, and enjoy the wild ride.