With the snow once again covering the campus grounds, I entered the CFA Theater on Saturday, Feb. 21 to find a man sitting in the middle of a vacant, dark stage, behind a desk, his back to the audience, reading a book. The air surrounding him was slightly filled with fog and unfamiliar music was playing in the background. I sat down, waiting for the lights to go off so that I could be taken to the world beyond the fourth wall in front of me.
The man started mumbling. “Has the show already started?” I wondered. He began talking, not to himself this time, but to me and to every individual sitting around me. I couldn’t quite understand every word he said, but it later became clear that he was retelling the history of the passport, enthusiastically, starting from King Henry V of England. Slowly, I started to become engrossed in the story, as I had never thought about the origins of the small book that I have always taken care of. The lights above my head started to dim. “Today, passports are biometric,” he said. The lights went off.
Written, directed, and performed by Thaddeus Phillips, through his company Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, “17 Border Crossings” blends culture, music, history, and criticism into a polished piece that surpassed my expectations and imagination in every single aspect. From the Amazon to France, Serbia to Gaza, and Jordan to Indonesia, each and every one of the 17 stories in the play reveals a wide range of funny, horrifying, and disheartening truths of the geographical, political, cultural, or religious borders surrounding us.
While the border crossing stories are not told in chronological order, they are arranged to sustain the flow of the production, offering tension and calamity. In one of his first border crossings, Phillips witnessed another passenger in his train compartment tossing smuggled suitcases out the window, where they were collected shortly after the train passed the border. Later, he thoroughly described the separation of the Mostar city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was divided into the West Mostar, where the Orthodox Christians lived, and the East Mostar, where Muslims lived. This religious separation resulted in a sound boundary caused by the west chapel bells and the sound of Azan coming from the eastern mosque. The sound of the clash was projected by the two speakers at the two sides of the stage. It captured the audience, displaying that borders don’t have to be physical in order to divide a city in half.
Phillips continued his journey by crossing the border of Austria to Germany over the Alps, using a chairlift, only to be surprised later that, regardless of the geographical border he had just passed through, Germany looked just like Austria. There were also a considerable number of thought-provoking scenes, including one where a food delivery, ordered secretly via Facebook, is carried through the hidden tunnels dug under one of the strictest borders in the world, from Egypt to Gaza. Toward the end, the show focused on immigration. The audience was introduced to the character of Pablo, who has repeatedly tried to pass the Mexico-USA border in order to reunite with his wife, who resides in USA, only to fail each time and become a laughingstock to border officers.
With 17 different stories, there are even more unique characters brought to life in these complicated border crossings, creating various subplots and interesting stories. Fortunately, all major plot lines get wrapped up, but not necessarily with a happy ending. While single-handedly playing all the characters, Phillips spoke Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic, and more over the course of the performance. He also managed to pronounce most words and sentences clearly enough to be easily understood if you are familiar with any of these languages. Although “17 Border Crossings” does not utilize fancy props or big structures, it takes advantage of the space it’s given, such that you never feel like a part of the stage is insufficiently used. Perhaps one of the most creatively staged scenes is when Phillips simulates the effects of consuming a strong drink by creating a big shadow with a powerful flashlight on one hand and a cup on his other hand, as he starts shivering, trembling, and running around.
When it comes to traditional theater, a performance is usually all about absorbing and placing the audience in the world that is being created on stage. However, in “17 Border Crossings,” the audience shared the creation process with the performer. The main element of “17 Border Crossings” is the alienation technique. Through flooding the audience with bright lights and revealing the technical aspects of the stage, “17 Border Crossings” alienates the audience from the world on stage. The reality that is presented to them through the medium of theater is called into question. This technique made “17 Border Crossings” not only an experience, but also food for thought.
As much as we might think of our world being connected through the Internet, our “global society” still suffers from the borders disconnecting, discriminating, and disharmonizing billions of people all around the globe. Whether these borders are inevitable, necessary, or not, “17 Border Crossings” accompanies the audience through a compilation of unique and diverse stories depicting the experience awaiting adventurers who defy the border limits of their native land.