Thaddeus Phillips is a magician of the stage. He likes putting disparate things together — objects, images, ideas — in service of a new and transformative vision. He is also an internationalist to the core. His characters are often bewildered travelers, and maps, boundaries and foreign languages play a large role in his work. In Lost Soles, a tap dancer found himself trapped in Cuba after the revolution; in El Conquistador — a piece that also featured the voyages of Christopher Columbus — Phillips was a Colombian doorman bedeviled by a horde of insane residents, all of them appearing on video and played by real telenovela stars; in The Earth's Sharp Edge, a Palestinian hijacker, Leila Khaled, takes the stage as the action moves between Morocco and a U.S. airport. And In Microworld(s), Part 1 — which is powered entirely by green energy — Phillips turns his attention to the plight of the earth and creates a work of healing and synthesis. Or, as he puts it, energy and sweetness.
The central character, Milo, is an astrophysicist and a man without a country. He's a Serb who fled the chaos following the breakup of Yugoslavia — but not before having been conscripted to fight on both sides of the conflict, survived NATO's bombardment, and donned a tartan hat to pass as Hungarian because only a Hungarian would wear such a ghastly thing. Accompanied by his rubber duckie, Fumio, Milo has escaped to Tokyo, where he lives in the famous Nakagin Tower. This, a real building constructed in the 1970s, is made up of modules that can theoretically be detached and replaced as needed. But as the play opens, the tower is scheduled to be imploded, and a technician (also played by Phillips) crawls beneath it, readying the detonation. Like Milo, Fumio has a peripatetic history. Made in China in 1992, he was among a shipload of 29,000 ducks swept overboard when the cargo ship taking them to Seattle ran into trouble. These toys were picked up by ocean currents and have since shown up all over the world — as Milo details on a map sketched onto the side of his cube — in a boon to oceanographers and a delight to everyone who likes weirdly resonant stories.
Milo is alone in his deserted tower, but he gleans useful information from a vendor selling bento boxes (Phillips again). He also muses on the Nobel awarded to Muhammad Yunus for his system of microcredit loans. And he's in touch with some powerful dead souls: Shakespeare, two of whose most famous soliloquies Phillips delivers in a manner wonderfully eccentric and entirely his own; Samuel Beckett; Schopenhauer; Camus and, most important, Nikola Tesla, the Serb-American inventor of alternating current, a man whose work many believe to have been far more prescient than Edison's. Tesla ended his days in New York, increasingly odd and isolated. He, too, loved a bird: a white pigeon that eventually died in his arms, her eyes, according to his description, emitting a beam of light brighter than any he himself had ever been able to create.
The Nakagin Tower, microloans, Tesla's vision — Milo eventually utilizes all these to avoid destruction. Phillips's technical approach to making theater is as eclectic and wide-ranging as his ideas. It's not just that he's hit on a number of ingenious devices to tell his story and keep Microworld(s) green, it's that these devices so seamlessly support the theme. The stage is dominated by a large, white, oblong box, which can represent anything from Milo's tower cube to a bathtub. A miniature tower and toy crane also come into play. Sound is provided by Tatiana Mallarino via iPhone; lighting emanates from a tin suitcase. Phillips himself is a protean actor. His central European Milo is as credible as his Japanese vendor; he never seems to be mimicking, just sliding into these characters as easily as if they already existed. And there's a playfulness that keeps everything flying.
Microworld(s) isn't perfect. Phillips always makes his set and costume changes visible, part of the fabric of the evening, but here the pauses sometimes extend too long. On the other hand, the fact that you have to involve yourself in the performance, feel your way through its silences, lean forward to absorb the details, is very much part of the point. We humans need to open ourselves now to all kinds of odd and seemingly unrelated manifestations, just as Milo does, because it's only through a combination of fact and faith, science and magic, energy and sweetness that we will find salvation.
Microworld(s), Part 1