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17 Border Crossings
Artistically, William Shakespeare marked the fact that King Henry V was the first person to invent the modern passport.— Thaddeus Phillips as The Passenger
Thaddeus Phillips (Photo by Johanna Austin)
Can a play be made out of the travels of one peripatetic man traveling the world? Well, Thaddeus Phillips has done just that with his solo work 17 Border Crossings now running at New York Theatre Workshop. Directed by Tatiana Mallarino (Phillips' wife), and performed by Phillips, it is a study of the imaginary lines that carve up our world and the complications they engender.

Based on Phillips' own travel experiences and his cultural readings, the play is surreal, comic, and highly original. Phillips relies on a chair, table, and bar of lights to evoke a creaky Croatian ferry, Amazonian ports, the twin cities of El Paso and Juarez, a psychedelic shaman, and more.

17 Border Crossings was previously staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2015. But it now carries history it didn't then. There were no heated debates on Trump's wall or immigrant families being separated at the border. According to a recent online interview with Broadway World, our narrator has added a new crossing between Columbia and Venezuela for the NYTW staging to reflect what's going on now. However, the spine of the work remains the same.

No need to go into detail on the various sketches that make up this travelogue. But, as the title hints, the focus is on 17 crossings, with each one offering a lesson in the local customs and strategic global thinking.

For each vignette, Phillips inhabits a character called The Passenger, an intrepid soul who greets each border with vim and vigor. And so, we follow him to Prague, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Cuba--and even the fields of Agincourt in 1415.

The opening sees Phillips emerging from a swirl of smoke at center stage, reciting the St. Crispin's speech from King Henry V. If this eems like an odd choice to begin the performance, think again. According to Phillips, Henry V in effect invented the first modern passport when he intoned the following lines to his soldiers on the battlefield of Agincourt:"That he which hath no stomach to this fight,/ Let him depart; his passport shall be made . . ."

Though 17 Border Crossings begins with poetry and heroism, it shifts into prose and practicalities. There's even one skit that has Phillips take a United States passport and microwave it on stage. No, it's not as idiotic as it seems since the passport goes snap, crackle, and pop in the microwave. It seems that our Passenger got a new passport in China with the RFID chip implanted in it. Since he didn't have the time to educate himself on new passport policies, he figured that baking his document in a microwave would invalidate its electronic chip (and keep him from being tracked by the Chinese government). Although it's unclear on whether this plan was actually carried out, it does give the audience food for thought.

Keeping track of all the languages spoken in this 90-minute show is almost impossible, as is recalling all the lands visited. But in spite of its quick-cut cinematic techniques that take us to all latitudes and longitudes, Phillips always reverts to his native English tongue and often has maps or drawings on hand to give us topographical images of a country.

This theatrical armchair traveling is a good way to see the world without having to go to the expense or spend time booking airline tickets and hotel rooms. Phillips as the Passenger gives us a close-up view of international borders in the millennium and teaches us, more or less, how to cross them.

All in all, 17 Border Crossings is a very agreeable play based on true study and experience. However, given the controversial immigration policies of the Trump administration, the genial tone can sound out of synch with our unsettled political times.

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17 Border Crossings by Thaddeus Phillips
Directed by Tatiana Mallarino
Cast: Thaddeus Phillips (The Passenger).
Sets: Thaddeus Phillips
Sound: Robert Kaplowitz
Lighting: David Todero
Stage Manager: Mallory Hewell
New York Theatre Workshop at 79 East 4th Street. Tickets: $59. Phone 212-460-5475 or online at
From 4/11/19; opening 4/15/19; closing 5/12/19.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 4/20/19

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