“I’ve never been to China,” remarked the restless Thaddeus Phillips in a Meet-the-Artist conversation after Saturday night’s performance of his 17 Border Crossings at the Hong Kong Arts Festival. His exotic and sometimes perilous journeys form the spine of this solo work, and now the peripatetic Phillips is expressing his desire to drive across the border from Hong Kong into China. The unspoken irony is that he is already in China.
Armed solely with a wooden desk and chair, a floating light gantry, a coffee mug, a flashlight, a piece of chalk, and a dazzling facility with languages, Phillips relives a series of encounters with immigration officials and colorful types caught up in the hazy world of border crossings between Hungary and Serbia; Luanda, Angola and London; Morocco and Colombia; Israel and Jordan; El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; and more. Expeditions by train, plane, ferry, chairlift, and motor scooter are embellished by his comic gymnastics and by the ingenious soundtrack and lighting effects (by Rob Kaplowitz and David Todaro, respectively.) It’s an astounding technical achievement.
Speaking mostly in the second person, Phillips draws the audience into his madcap adventures. The script itself is prosaic, the individual tales occasionally wispy, the skewering of stereotypes hardly revelatory. Still, it’s great fun to rendezvous with the hapless Hungarian train conductor, the sexy Israeli border policewomen, the American immigration officer who is unaware that Serbia is a country, the Colombian official susceptible to celebrity name-dropping, the French gendarme overeager to conduct a cavity search. Phillips deftly makes the enduring point that modern borders are often irrational – drawn by cigar-chomping, whisky-swilling diplomats cosseted in five-star hotels, and policed by goons and incompetents.
Steeped in Czech theater and influenced by Robert Lepage, Phillips has shaped this virtuosic monologue over several years. Apart from a brief, poignant reference to the travails of an imaginary Syrian father and daughter making the dangerous passage across the Aegean Sea, none of the 17 episodes responds directly to current crises. Yet in its gentle mocking of the absurdities of border policing, this piece of theatre resonates in the climate of hysteria over wall-building and Muslim-banning, in the agony of Brexit, and amid the growing reluctance of Western nations to take in more Syrian refugees. The subject of border crossings is no less explosive in Hong Kong, amid the outrage over last year’s abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers and, more recently, a billionaire businessman – all whisked off to the mainland and detained under murky charges, in violation of Hong Kong’s autonomy under the principle of “one country, two systems.”
Indelible images conjured up by Phillips include the claustrophobic “little square room” – a staple of every port – that serves as holding pen and interrogation cell. Shadow puppetry is employed to illuminate the inhumanity of the interactions in these rooms, in a comic yet harrowing episode in which Phillips and a Croatian friend travel to Bali, intending to witness a performance of the iconic wayang kulit (shadow puppets.) They never make it out of the Denpasar airport but are deported after cross-examination by half-witted officials.
Then there are the competing walls of sound erected at the border between East and West Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bosnian Muslims blast their five-times-daily call to prayers through loudspeakers aimed at their Christian neighbors, who match the provocation by amplifying the clanging of their church bells.
The evening closed with the poetic words of a migrant worker-cum-philosopher named Pablo, whom Phillips portrays as an expert at dodging border patrols at the U.S.-Mexico border. Pablo prefers the American usage of “aliens” to the Spanish “extranjeros.” To him “aliens” resounds with the theory that the seeds of organic life were planted by comets that crashed to earth billions of years. “Todos somos extraterrestres,” Pablo pronounces gleefully, “we are all aliens.”
The accumulation of these slender episodes mutates into something greater than the sum of its parts. It recalls the climax of Philip Larkin’s ‘Whitsun Weddings,’ in which the poet journeys by train to London and finds himself traveling amid a throng of wedding parties:
“There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Traveling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.”
The train becomes an arrow “aimed” at London, weaponized with the zeal of dozens of couples headed for wedded bliss. As its destination approaches, a “sense of falling” – of failure, disappointment or frustration – is likened to a hail of arrows, shot at a great distance, presumably an act of aggression or war. And yet that arrow-shower does not strike human targets; instead, it morphs into rain, into a life-giving force of nature.
17 Border Crossings situates us all in a “frail traveling coincidence.” Like Larkin, Phillips finds the monumental in the everyday, turning human frailty into art, in the hope that “all the power that being changed can give” will be a force for good rather than evil.
– 17 Border Crossings ran from Feb 16-19 at the 45th Hong Kong Arts Festival. –