It Was Earth All Along!: “Zoo Motel”

Thaddeus Phillips in “Zoo Motel.”

Co-presented by the Miami Light Project 
Created by Thaddeus Phillips
Designed by Steven Dufala
CO-created & directed by Tatiana Mallarino
Magic by Steve Cuiffo
Movement by Fernando Careaga & Katya Humenyuk

Now – October 20, 2020
A Performance over Zoom
8:00 pm – 9:05 pm
Zoo Motel on Facebook

Review by Kitty Drexel

ZOOM — A theatrical production doesn’t have to perfectly incorporate its many elements to be Art or even good entertainment. It must engage the mind and welcome us into its world. Great theatre can have plot holes up the wazoo so long as it’s a wazoo we believe in. We believe in Zoo Motel’s wazoo.

Zoo Motel is imperfect art but it is good art. Performer and creator Thaddeus Phillips gives us a brief reprieve from pandemic stressors by occupying us with new, unusual ones. Audience members/hotel residents are greeted by the Night Clerk (Newton Buchanan) as a group. He offers us amenities such as the espresso bar (delicious) and gives us a brief spiel about what to expect. Even though he briefs us, I couldn’t say that we were fully prepared for our experience. It was fun but also intense.

Phillips plays a fellow hotel resident who gets trapped in his room. The audience helps him get his bearings in his room. His quirky, eclectic room contains multitudes and we explore it. In return, Phillips entertains us with stories until he falls asleep. My description is straightforward but Zoo Motel is anything but.

This noir escapade through the mind’s dreamscapes incorporates the fantastical (sleight of hand, illusions, film, dramatic lighting) to the comical (a creepy puppet, audience participation, miniatures, animation). Layered between each element are stories, Phillips’ and the Earth’s. He is our narrator, guide, and conspirator. We are his audience and captives. The Zoo Motel is the Hotel California: we can check out any time we like but we may never leave.

Zoo Motel has no 4th wall. Audience members will engage with Phillips if they are willing. Participants are asked to turn their mics and cameras on and off at his request but only if they are comfortable doing so. It was fun to see strangers in other rooms over Zoom. We smiled together as we made silly faces and waved. No stoic meeting attendees were we.

For me, it was a desperately needed reminder that desire to commune over theatre. We couldn’t hear, smell, or touch each other. It was enough to know that others were out there, across the world, having a shared, similar experience.

After purchasing tickets, we are asked to bring a deck of playing cards to the performance and print out several sheets of paper. We are told that we should have these items “by any means necessary.” While it is fun to experience how the cards are used first hand, it is not necessary to go out of one’s way to get a fresh deck or buy one if inconvenient. This is especially true if cards are not something you play with any frequency. Do get the cards if you think you’ll want to learn magic with them.

Newton Buchanan in “Zoo Motel.”

Zoo Motel ends and leads directly into a talkback with Phillips. It is the only talkback that I’ve ever attended that didn’t fill me with bitter regret once it began (because most talkbacks are ridiculous beasts with concave edges and scales that exist purely to exhaust the cast and to placate the one narcissistic donor that craves them). Phillips welcomed the audience backstage and supplied information about his performance that we actually wanted to know. He was excited to share with us.

Phillips didn’t withhold tricks of the trade. Rather, I got the feeling that he wanted to share his process in case we could use it too. I felt part of a Zoom workshop. It was another element of the communal experience that I wasn’t expecting but definitely miss from in-person rehearsals. It was satisfying to be discussing art again even if it was mostly one-sided.

The Zoo Motel website says that the show run until October 25. In his talkback, Phillips hinted that the production would continue through November. New start times would appeal to different time zones. Please check for more information.

I’m reminded of Francis Poulenc’s art song Hôtel. Translation by Richard Stokes.
“My room is shaped like a cage
The sun slips its arm through the window
But I who want to smoke to make mirages
I light my cigarette on daylight’s fire
I do not want to work I want to smoke”

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