We’re now well into week 2 of Fringe World and The Blue Room’s Summer Nights season, and that means we’re about halfway through this festival already! Can you believe it?
Today we take a look at two shows that are on now at PICA until February 6th: 17 Border Crossings and Sleeping Beauty.
From the moment that Thaddeus Phillips hit the stage I was reminded of a beautiful show presented by PIAF in 2014: An Iliad starring Denis O’Hare. I have such fond memories of An Iliad, and although the two works aren’t much alike in structure or tone, they are both one-man odysseys told by an American actor. They are both truly exciting pieces of theatre.
Phillips begins with a history lesson of the passport. He advances on stage, mounting a desk while reciting a speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V in which the word ‘passport’ is mentioned:
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;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
Then he quickly breaks character and settles into a chair at the desk, lit by a nothing but a desk lamp, and describes how the modern passport came to be. He produces his own American passport, humorously describing the imagery to be found on the pages (the cactuses on the page for Arizona, behind which the illegal Mexican immigrants are hiding, for instance), and finally comes to the page that has the ‘BIOMETRIC’ (he says with emphasis into a nearby mic) microchip embedded. He puts the passport into an imaginary microwave for ten seconds, presumably to disable the transmitters, and as the microwave counts down, Phillips counts us down to the imaginary journey we’re about to take with him through 17 border crossings.
The prologue sets up the rest of the show perfectly. Phillips introduces us to his offhand humor and his imaginative delivery, and from here, he becomes our tour guide through just about every continent. He describes encounters with border guards, customs officials, strangers on trains; these he embodies using physical transformations, props, accents and a smattering of lightning-tongued patter in at least half a dozen different languages.
The inventiveness isn’t restricted to character work, it’s also in the staging. The set is deceptively simple: he’s got a desk, a desk lamp, a mic, a chair, a cup, and a bar of lights connected to a counter-weight in the form of an old blue suitcase that he himself flies in and out as needed. Occasionally he turns the table on its side and positions himself sideways on the floor so that we are seeing an aerial view of the scene. He uses a flashlight to project shadows on the back wall of the PICA studio, and then to simulate the perception-altering effects of drinking kopi luwak (the coffee bean passed through the digestive system of a cat). There are so many visual surprises, far too many to mention.
Aside from that, if these journeys (which date back to the early 90s) are all his, he’s been through some epic experiences. Phillips’s show is as much instructive as it is entertaining, as we are reminded of recent history, where borders shift, countries are dissolved and new ones are born. He lets us see life in other places that seem too dangerous or too remote to visit ourselves, and in so doing he reminds us of how lucky so many of us are. In perhaps the most sobering and timely moment, he describes a scene with his young son. They’re on a beach in Italy, playing a game of hide and seek with objects. He begins to think about a father and son across the sea in Syria, playing a similar game on the beach. Except they’re preparing to board a raft, and the consequences are all too real.
Don’t miss this one, folks.
The tale of Sleeping Beauty is ideal fodder for adaptation: there is no one standard narrative, there are several different sources that stem from different regions, and therefore lots of varying elements. Renee Newman and Ian Sinclair have researched several variants on the Sleeping Beauty theme to create their own version, which they are performing now at PICA until Saturday.
Newman is an insomniac mother of twins (an element which comes from Basile’s version, Sun, Moon and Talia), whose husband has encouraged her to go to a sleep clinic for radical treatment. She has been having nightmares, and after being tested overnight, the doctor tells her she woke up a total of 142 times and slept only 4.5 hours. She’s still in denial about the seriousness of her sleep disorders until the doctor reveals what her husband had reported to him prior to her admission. She then begins to understand the danger she and her family are in.
She meets a fellow ‘guest’ (not ‘patient’) at the clinic (Sinclair), who is obsessed with a fantasy video game which prevents him from sleeping and makes him unable to distinguish reality from unreality. The two are quick to bond over their shared affliction, and soon begin to reveal their inner turmoil to each other. Their nightmares begin to merge and intertwine as they undergo deep sleep therapy, where they remain in a drug-induced sleep for days on end. It’s unclear if the treatments are working, but they manage to overcome the monsters that haunt them both, to a degree.
This feels like a fairly stripped-back, conventional piece from Sinclair, but then again, it is a co-creation with Newman, so there may be a merging of styles. With nothing but themselves, two chairs and a mic, the two end up using a fair bit of physicality to convey story and meaning. There is more describing than doing, but the two have a lot of sweet-natured chemistry when they do have dialogue exchange. Newman is always a compelling, confident performer, and she inhabits this character fully, right down to her feet, which are often curled over each other as an outward indicator of her character’s internal anxieties.
The piece is dreamlike (indeed the characters do spend a decent portion of the show describing their dreams), and is not without its charms. It’s less a comment on the science of sleep and more a look into the emotional reality of dreams and how they can bleed over into our waking life. In a strange way, it made me really look forward to slipping into my PJs, crawling between the sheets, and drifting off to dreamland.
For tickets and more information, visit The Blue Room website Summer Nights page here.