The first time I saw a work by Thaddeus Phillips, a Denver native who now runs Philadelphia-based Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, was at Buntport Theater on a cold night in 2001. The piece was called Shakespeare’s Storms and there were around fifteen people in the audience — two of them being me and my friend. Phillips’s set represented the green slope of a golf course, on which the actor-director picked up a club, and then acted out the entirety of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Just him. All the other characters were represented by objects: a cigarette holder, a flower, shoes, with a tooth-chattering Javanese puppet as the Fool. The plot was intact, though the script had been cut down. And that was the evening’s first act. The second was a re-enactment of The Tempest in a kiddie wading pool. Shivering in our seats, my friend and I wondered how Phillips, soaking wet and stripped to the waist, could keep going.
Odd as all this was, it was completely absorbing and provided some strangely eloquent and subversive insights into the plays. Since then Phillips has never ceased his rich and deep experimentation, and his plays have been shown in several countries. His work-in-progress, the ARCHIVIST, opens at Buntport Thursday, June 30, and runs through July 16. Phillips’s experiments aren’t shallow games and they don’t exist just for experiment’s sake: The words, the images created through his imaginative use of props and fluidly inventive sets are in service to specific themes and ideas — some clear and easy to verbalize, some provocative, some ambiguous. His interests are wide-ranging, and his work unshowy and close to the ground — while at the same time quietly spectacular. Also funny. A suitcase full of sand becomes a desert through the creative use of light and shadow. A toy plane flies a character over the ocean. Someone walks away from us along a very convincing path created by video alone.
For the ARCHIVIST, Phillips and co-creator Tatiana Mallarino, who’s also his wife, are creating a set representing an archive of all the movies ever made that is also a large, all-encompassing human brain, with a right and left side, eyes and a cerebellum. “We’ve made three halls of the archive," Phillips says. "If you’re sitting stage right, you see clearly down that hall but not the other two. We have to balance the information in threes. You see the whole show but not at the same time. It’s like a puzzle. This is iconic, but it’s very simple. And it’s all set in one location. We’re in this, like, lost space and it’s not clear if it’s a real film archive or at the bottom of the Arctic somewhere. One layer is about the brain and what it does, and there’s also a real person who knows all the films in the archive — so we can do whole sections of Tootsie or Network or whatever. The play is about the history of film and how we remember things through film. Also, the brain’s like an archive; we’re looking for a lot of things: How we perceive the nature of reality, art creation. Like in a Twilight Zone episode, the guy in the archive becomes characters in film; so it’s ideas about humanity embedded in this weird twilight zone.”
While at Colorado College, which he attended along with the actors who formed Buntport, Phillips studied with Encho Avramov, a teacher from Bulgaria; later he spent a year at Charles University in Prague. His ideas on set design are heavily influenced by Eastern European theater. He learned that set design is “like an active character” and can transform, he says, and also that it is “involved in metaphors of the show.” Under Communism, he adds, “plays were censored, so directors started to put in a lot of visual symbols: Grandpa spills the coffee and that actually means something completely different. There’s a phone call coming in, maybe the character’s mother, maybe it never gets answered — and what if that’s the signal from space we never manage to pick up? The Twilight Zone framework for the ARCHIVIST gives us that feel. It’ll be a more action-based, dancelike world, and there’s a narrative voiceover that will ground everything.”
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As with all his work, there is a theme to the ARCHIVIST, Phillips says: “We have a secret way we’re going to sneak that in. We have a very strong political observation we’ll be putting in the middle of the show.”
Though Phillips himself usually acts in his own work, Ean Sheehy, a New York-based actor, stars in the ARCHIVIST. “I’m working on the outside. There might be more people appearing on stage toward the end,” says Phillips, “but they’re not going to be billed.”
Because this is a work in progress, audiences over the three-week run will see somewhat different versions. “We’ll be adjusting it,” says Phillips. “This is completely new. We had a one-week workshop with students from Boston’s Emerson College to play with ideas, and now we’re throwing it up in front of an audience.”