Map Happy

The choice of a journey often deserves a writer's attention quite as much as the journey itself. Travel, like dreaming, is a form of emotional satisfaction, and though you may explain the act of dreaming by the cheese eaten at dinner, you cannot explain so easily the particular images which formed the dream. -- Graham Greene, Analysis of a Journey

I'm always elated when I leave one of Thaddeus Phillips's productions. It's something about the way he fuses intellect and feeling with an entirely original vision of the world. Or the sense of possibility he excites by making theater out of flour sacks and dented desks, toy airplanes, his own voice and body, memory, clips and strings, bits of books, interviews, politics, loaded images and the vagaries of the human psyche. Perhaps it's simpler than that. Perhaps the way he plays with objects and distorts our sense of scale plunges us back into the rapt absorption with which we explored the world as children. But there's a heady sense of intellectual exploration here, too.

When I got home from seeing The Earth's Sharp Edge at Buntport, I told my husband I'd had a wonderful evening. He wanted to know what was so wonderful about it. Well, I said, it's about this guy -- Phillips himself -- who gets stopped by airport security after a visit to Morocco; he's carrying a book called Extreme Islam, and the book has a story in it about Leila Khaled, a Palestinian woman who hijacked two planes, one in 1969, the other in 1970. The more he explains, the more suspicious the security guard gets, and this predicament is the frame for the action. But there are also video and audio clips from the movie Casablanca; they, too, frame the action. The guard wants to know what the man was doing in Morocco, and as the man describes his settling into a hotel room, his ventures into the marketplace and his interactions with various Arab vendors, these things are re-enacted in front of us. Leila Khaled emerges silently from a suitcase, and now scenes from her life and her hijackings are interwoven with the protagonist's story. How is it all done? Through improvised action and the magical use of objects. Videotaped scenes of daily life in Marrakesh play on several small screens. Two tables serve as hotel-room beds, panels in the back of a TWA plane, and platforms on which cast members sit or stand. Toy airplanes are held aloft by actors to represent Israeli aircraft escorting one of Khaled's hijacked planes. The contents of a suitcase fly into the air, creating a patchwork canopy. A man is asked to empty his suspiciously heavy suitcases onto a table; it turns out they contain nothing but sand. Within minutes the table is a miniature desert, and then there's a small miracle of shadow play created by a single flashlight.

Phillips studied puppetry in Prague. As evidenced by his past work, he's also very fond of shoes.

What is this play about? Airport security, obviously, with some funny and penetrating comparisons of flight in the late '60s with flight today. The plight of the Palestinians. Language. Repression versus freedom of speech and movement. The author/producer's fascination with travel and other cultures.

And there's the emotional link, which has something to do with love, between the fictive Phillips and his image of the 24-year-old Leila Khaled. Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was an iconic figure during the revolutionary late '60s and early '70s, a beautiful woman willing to sacrifice her life for her cause. Although the PFLP is a hard-line revolutionary group, Khaled was instructed to protect the passengers' lives during her two hijack attempts. The only death that occurred was that of her Nicaraguan companion, Patrick Arguello, during the second hijacking; he was shot four times by guards. Khaled's actions are romanticized in The Earth's Sharp Edge, but they're also treated with humor. We see her fear and confusion, her comic miscalculations once she's invaded the cockpit during the first hijacking. Imprisoned in Ealing, London (she was eventually freed by Prime Minister Edward Heath in a hostage exchange), she offers dating advice to the women guarding her.

Most of all, however, I think The Earth's Sharp Edge is about maps, borders and crossings, the interstices between one place, time, way of thought or state of being and another -- those liminal places where certainties dissolve and new understanding becomes possible. The performing area itself turns into such a space, designated as an independent country with its own secret service, border patrol and (often hilariously irregular) entry requirements. Maps are particularly evocative. At one point, Phillips engages in a discussion in French, English and Arabic with a passionate Moroccan who insists that our sense of the world as a globe is inherently oppressive, with those at the top of the orb feeling superior to those inhabiting countries lower down. "We have to rethink our map," he insists. As for Khaled, she'll continue her fight "until the map has room for me on it." And finally, the customs official figures out Phillips: "You're really making a map of the world for yourself, aren't you, sir?"

Phillips usually performs solo, but The Earth's Sharp Edge features seven other actors, most of them playing several roles: Brian Colonna, Hannah Duggan, Erik Edborg, Muni Kulasinghe, Tatiana Mallarino, Erin Rollman and Evan Weissman. All of these actors are terrific. Muni Kulasinghe brings great vitality to everything he does, from the extraordinary Arabic lesson he gives the audience to his expressive violin playing, and Mallarino is a touching, haunting Khaled. Phillips himself has strong authority and focus as an actor; he approaches every scene with the openness and infectious curiosity that I'm sure went into the play's making in the first place.

I'm afraid I've made The Earth's Sharp Edge sound forbidding or fey, or thick with symbolism, or pretentiously experimental. It's not any of those things. It's funny and joyously inventive, and I think everyone in the audience left the theater as exhilarated as I was. Go see for yourselves.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman