Thaddeus Phillips, known for his mind-expanding experimental work, has a young son, and his latest play, A Billion Nights on Earth, was created for children. Also adults. A child loses his stuffed whale. Searching through the dark house at night, he "gets sucked through the refrigerator. He was in the fridge, and then there's a milk carton four times taller than the kid, and it spills over, and the milk becomes the Arctic, and he sets off looking for his whale," Phillips says in an interview.
He admits there's something of Maurice Sendak's brilliant children's books in the concept, but while Sendak's young protagonists are profoundly alone, the father of the boy in Billion Nights follows his son, and they embark on their adventure together.
It's hard to explain what's so wonderful about Phillips's work — though I think it's significant that friends ask me so often when he's coming back to Denver. Phillips usually shows in Philadelphia and New York, as well as internationally, and he visits our town once a year or less. Although the productions are exploratory, they're never pretentious. Like the folks at Buntport, with whom Phillips studied theater at Colorado College many years ago, he's influenced by Eastern European theater and makes extraordinary use of objects as well as lighting and space. He unfolds a pocket handkerchief onto a toy bed, and we're in the spare little room in Cuba where the protagonist of Lost Soles stays. He talks to video images of real Latin American telenovela stars, and they talk back to him in El Conquistador. In The World's Sharp Edge, he opens a suitcase full of sand and, through manipulation of light and shade, we see rolling desert dunes. Like all good retirees, his King Lear plays golf on an AstroTurf green. At the moment, he's intrigued with inflatables "because they're so cool. I'm working on another solo show — serious topics, but the design will be inflatable. Inflatables pack down really, really small, and they get really big. The inflatables for A Billion Nights we had made in Colombia. There are some animals that are really huge and will barely fit in the space. We're inflating fun things now, but if you inflated the wall between the U.S. and Mexico ...
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"When I had my son, I thought it would be cool to develop a show the way I work, but also for kids. It's an experimental theater piece for kids, a children's show for adults, and an adult show for kids." This doesn't mean, he adds, that this is a children's story with some wink-wink references to keep parents awake. "I avoid the thing about donating to NPR, or putting in a joke that only an adult would get. We're not doing that kind of double layering. This is with a real father and son: We're working with an eight-year-old. Father and son are played by Michael and Winslow Fegley.
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"The way I'm working with set design, visual things, transformation, is very much the way a child works. The kid gets things we're doing and suggests great ideas. I'm also trying to use as little language as possible. The play's about exploring visual storytelling, images and action rather than dialogue. We're changing images on stage, letting the changes take place on their own without too much explanation. A little kid doesn't have to understand exactly what's being said, and it frees us adults to make it a little more abstract."
The Buntport showing will be a world premiere, and the technical requirements are complex. "We're trying to finish it as best we can," Phillips says. "Buntport has a lot less lights. But we're bringing the composer, the full team, putting this whole thing together. It's a mini Cirque du Soleil production, and we're treating it as a full production, even though this is the first time it will ever be seen." He adds that some of his bigger and more complex shows over the last few years never arrived in Denver because they were simply too big for any available venue — a situation he hopes to change.
His final word on the show: "I wanted to say that A Billion Nights on Earth is also an ode and homage to how fantastical and amazing this planet is, humanity is — or can be, the animal world and the Universe."
A Billion Nights on Earth, through Saturday, July 29 at Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388. Admissions is pay what you can.