Polonio Castro, the protagonist of Thaddeus Phillips's El Conquistador!, is a Colombian peasant living out a fantasy. Although there are similar Everyman characters in many cultures, Polonio reminds me of the humorous little men who populate Czech film and literature -- not too great a stretch, given that Phillips's theater training drew from that heritage. I'm thinking of Josef Capek's illustrations for his brother Karel's book, The Gardener's Year -- the gardener racing from place to place with a wilting seedling in his hand, looking for somewhere to plant it, scrabbling in the soil with his rump raised to the cloudless blue sky or happily directing a silver stream of water toward his thirsty charges. These folk have no power in the world, but they ultimately get what they want precisely because they're small, cheeky and irrepressible, and they illustrate the stubborn persistence of personality in the face of huge, dehumanizing forces.
Polonio's crops have failed because of the rain of U.S. pesticides intended to eradicate Colombia's coca crops. Taking with him his television and a beloved potted plant, he decides to seek his fortune in Bogota. There he takes a job as the doorman at an apartment building called Edificio Nuevo Mundo. The place is populated by an eccentric and demanding group of tenants: a woman endlessly complaining about the noisy party next door; the party host who insists that Polonio provide a tranquilizer for the annoying woman beating on his door; a sinister figure who abuses his girlfriend and has strange packages brought to his room at even stranger hours; a lost, paranoid soul lurking somewhere in the building's recesses.
Polonio is addicted to telenovelas, Latin American soaps. Earlier, Phillips has told us that these soaps take their plots from Shakespeare and such swashbuckling romances as The Count of Monte Cristo. Sure enough, the plot of the play becomes more and more far-fetched and soapy. As in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, there are twins lost at sea. There's a Romeo and Juliet-ish catastrophe -- a suicide caused by a simulated death. And there's also a villain confessing his sins on his knees, like Claudius in Hamlet. Need I say that Polonio ("To thine own self be true") Castro (hmmm) triumphs over all this?
Naturally, this being a Thaddeus Phillips production, the story is told by highly ingenious means within a universalizing sociopolitical frame. Previously, Phillips mounted a production of King Lear in which Cordelia was represented by a plastic flower, her evil sisters by a cigarette and a high-heeled shoe. At various times, he's also unleashed a crescendo of tap-dancing; created a desert out of light, shadow and a suitcase filled with sand; and flown us over the ocean in a toy plane. El Conquistador! uses video, sound, a moveable, translucent square frame, toy boats and a jar of feathers to create similar magic. The tenants of the apartment house appear on film; they are played by genuine Latin American soap stars, including Victor Mallarino, who wrote the script for El Conquistador!, and his niece, Tatiana. These are expressive and convincing actors, and pretty soon it feels as if the boundaries between reality and fantasy, action and play-acting, flesh-and-blood people and the visual representation of those people are dissolving.
I love the way Phillips produces his illusions -- low-key, serious, sometimes fumbling the tech a little, making it clear that the process of putting the work together and its aesthetic are one and the same. There's a kind of humility to this work. Periodically, Phillips takes on the character of one of the apartment-dwellers, including a woman, and what he does isn't mimicry or caricature; it's more as if he's making a genuine attempt to enter that personality and fathom its singularities, using a simple series of gestures or a small, telling change in tone of voice.
El Conquistador! is intended as the first of a trilogy, and the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World frames the action. Travel, boundaries, colonialism and cultural dislocation are all important themes for Phillips; The Earth's Sharp Edge, for example, dealt with border crossings, Middle Eastern politics and the story of Palestinian guerrilla Leila Khalid. Aside from a brief explanation by Phillips at the beginning, El Conquistador! is entirely in Spanish, with an English translation unscrolling on a screen.
Phillips, who will also present El Conquistador! in Manitou Springs next month and take the play to New York in the spring of 2006, is a completely original talent. He synthesizes differing theatrical traditions to create exhilarating new forms, and it's a privilege to watch the results of his explorations.
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