Posted by: strugglesome | September 13, 2010

Bienvenidos al mundo nuevo: Exploration and exhilaration in Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental’s El Conquistador!

I once read an article with a soap opera star who said that she loved performing in One Life To Live or As The World Turns or Complicaciones Romanticos or whatever it was because she felt like this was legitimately the most artistic and authentic that she as an actress was able to be. She went on to describe soap operas as the great stories of our times, and at that point I have to be honest, I put the article down. However, this past Friday evening as I watched Thaddeus Phillips of Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental perform El Conquistador!, a piece he created in Bogota with the collaboration of Colombian artists Tatiana and Victor Mallarino, I realized I should have finished reading the article. But then I realized, this piece is good enough that it needs no exterior explanation from Soap Opera Digest, in fact, Soap Opera Digest might want to consider giving Phillips a call for advice.

Entering the gorgeous Suzanne Roberts Theater stage clad in a poncho and a hat fit for a ranchero, sack and machete around his waist, Phillips addresses the audience directly in his pre-show speech, the first and last English we will hear for the rest of the performance (unless you count “Ello!” and some mangled expletives, our international reputation is just so charming, don’t you think?).  Phillips let’s us know the things he considers to be important to our understanding of the piece. He holds up a doorman’s hat and gravely assures us that it’s not a fake hat, it’s a real hat. Good to know. Phillips goes on to tell us that in fair Columbia (where we set our scene) only the portero (or doorman) has the key to the apartment building, so you need him desperately for everything from racially insensitive cigarettes to entering your own apartment. Phillips also introduces us to the wonders of Pony Malta (the unofficial national drink of Columbia,apparently) and informs us that Soap Operas, or Telenovelas en espanol, are based on classical plots like Shakespeare and The Count Of Monte Cristo. Then, giving us an affable nod, Phillips wanders offstage, and 80 minutes of incredible hilarious and supremely intelligent theater begins.

We start by jumping back in time (a theme, it seems, this year) to 1492 (Columbus sails the ocean blue) and the exceedingly clever effortlessly transforming set (designed by Phillips and engineered by James Sugg) begins to show us the depth of it’s talents. Considering how large the Suzanne Roberts Theater stage is, it’s interesting that Phillips’ piece uses so little of it, but it’s also effective, it gives us the sense of a small cramped apartment building lobby, which is the setting for the majority of the play. Initially we simply see a suspended white square structure floating a few feet above the stage, hanging just in front of a square screen. In our brief journey to the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, the structure becomes the sea, covered with ridges and the perfect setting for los tres barcos famosos that started it all. When describing that initial journey, it is imagined that the sailors on board must have assumed that “Tonight we will fall off the world!” as their ships carried them closer and closer to the edges of the square earth. Polonio, our ranchero-turned portero, is not quite so afraid of change. Abandoning the idyllic Colombian countryside (where his fields have been fumigated to make room for more cocaine), Polonio decides that he has more then enough talent to act in one of his beloved soap operas, and so, television and pet plant in hand, the country mouse makes his way to Bogota with hope in his heart and ambition in his eyes.

Polonio (you could go Greek and think it a reference to Olympian Apollo, or go English and assume it’s Polonius, everyone’s favorite bearer of unwanted advice, your choice),  picks up a job as the new doorman in the bustling apartment complex amusingly called “El Edificio Nuevo Mundo”, and soon finds himself juggling the demands of the many denizens of the space with his own desires to care for his plant and watch his “stories”. Considering my personal knowledge of Latin Culture, I have to say, Polonio’s desperate attempts not to let his pesky job get in the way of his important viewing time are piercingly accurate to me. Over the course of a two day period Polonio is pursued by several lascivious ladies of various social standings and age groups, threatened by a wild eyed Didier, bemused by “El Loco” (I don’t know what he’s on, but I NEVER want to try it), electrocuted (that one he brought on himself) , shot (by his long lost twin brother! TWIST!), staging his own funeral in a Tom Sawyer kind of way, and ultimately become wildly successful beyond his (or his plant’s) dreams. That’s right, two days. It honestly makes me wonder if I need to start making better use of my time.

All this, of course, is depicted almost solely by Phillip’s interactions with pre-recorded videos (whose Colombian cast, all actual Telenovela starts, is exceptional), and the story is catalyzed and communicated in video calls from the various tenants. The view we have of the lobby is constantly changing as Phillips swings the small mobile “front desk” around the stage, altering the focal point. Polonio’s many duties are  beautifully choreographed as Phillips walks in and out of a series of projected videos in a move startlingly reminiscent of Rainpan 43‘s All Wear Bowlers, for as Phillips moves behind the screen an image of Polonio suddenly appears in the video, a trick that amazes and delights me no matter how often I see it.

Certain stories are famous for a reason. We enjoy them and appreciate them and that enjoyment is derived not from surprises but from security, the knowledge that we know where something is going and are delighted to watch it go there. Great stories and plays are like this, we don’t go see Hamlet to find out what’s going to happen to the gloomy Dane and his on-again off-again gal pal, we go to appreciate the inevitable as it arrives. Originality comes from the process, not the product, and this show is a phenomenal example of that. Phillips artfully plays with trope, with stereotypes of Latin America and Soap Operas, with Shakespeare’s plots (which of course are really just Commedia dell’Arte plots, which are Roman and Greek plots, which probably got ripped off of some Chimpanzee Theater Initiative in Post-Modern Paleolithic Africa…) and he does it in a way that is accessible and exciting and frankly hilarious. “You’ve got a great laugh”, said the man sitting next to me after. He should know, I suppose, over the course of the play he certainly heard it often enough.

If you want to see Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental’s  El Conquistador!, well, too bad, it had a criminally short run and is no longer playing. However you can check out upcoming projects from the group here, and if you have the energy maybe you can start some kind of grassroots campaign to make Phillips re-don his poncho and do the whole thing again. Should you do so, please call me, I want a ticket.

(Note: I really wish I knew how to insert an upside down question mark in this format, because I think it would make this so much more authentic. Oh, well, we must carry on in the face of adversity, I suppose.)


  1. […] there are so many from which to choose) he was delighting audiences with his one man telenovela, El Conquistador! and preparing his next work for the 2011 Live Arts Festival, WHaLE OPTICS. But somewhere in between […]

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