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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
In the mood for something compellingly different? El Conquistador! now at New York Theatre Workshop is just the ticket. The inventive mix of video and live performance is reminiscent of some Wooster Group productions. The video segments are a riot and the live performance by Thaddeus Phillips is nothing short of amazing. His Polonio is drolly earnest and awkward, yet able to switch roles with lightning fast agility and he and the videa taped cast give you a sense of watching a foreign film, a play and television soap opera all rolled into one entertaining package that uses the Telenovela to spoof the society that is obsessed with it.
The plot ambitiously jumps from Christopher Columbus's voyage to the New World to the migration of Polonio, a poor Columbian farmer to the city of Bogotà in hopes of becoming a soap opera or Telenovela star. His complaint that "the Gringos are fumigating everything" hints at the political subtext that makes this more than just a divertisement. Naturally, the road to riches is not quite as smooth as Polonio hoped it would be. And so, unable to realize his goal immediately, he becomes a doorman in an apartment building where his only connection to television is the intercom through which he communicates with the building's residents and through the small TV on which he tries, whenever possible, to watch his favorite Telenovela, Cassandra. The comic saga plays out with everyone except Polonio appearing on screen. Phillips not only handles his demanding role with brio and spot on timing, but is responsible for the text (in collaboration with director and actress Taitiana Mallarino) and the scenic design that's canny enough to get its own star billing.
The main stage props are a large screen, and a versatile translucent panel which flips up to become the entry roof of the New World building. It overhangs the new doorman's reception desk which is on wheels for convenient scene shifts The rim of that roof serves as a handy screen for the English translation of the dialogues between Polonio and the eccentric residents (if this were seen in a larger theater, that roof rim would be a more problematic screen for the translated text).
As Polonio scurries to deal with the tenants' demands for diet cokes, Pony Malt (a famous Columbian drink), tranquilizers, the delivery of a mysterious package he emerges as a central figure in their lives — and even an object of desire for three of the female residents (simultaneously so!) This bears out the prologue (a beguiling English sequence, also delivered by Phillips) which explains that because of Colombia's well publicized security situations all building have a doorman even though most are neither trained or called on to be fighters but are more like friends and delivery men.
I could detail the craziness and strangeness of some of these residents and the doorman's expertly choreographed involvement which even includes a murder, but the unique staging and the brilliant performances of the video cast as well as Phillips defy description. Neither is it easy to single out a favorite scene. It's hard to top the big screen replay of Christopher Columbus's journey, which has his sailing vessels dropping off the screen. But then there are all those outrageous residents popping up on that video screen and that priceless keystone cop murder scene.
Suffice it to say that as the show succeeds as a social spoof that brings together various media genres, so Polonio's life as a doorman turns out to be an apt yellow brick road for his Telenovela ambitions. And, as the Polonio character proves his prologue self right in describing a doorman's importance to the residents, so his madcap adventures work because they are based on classical sources, notably Shakespeare.
My one complaint about El Conquistador! is that it goes on too long— but not enough so to keep you from missing this deliciously demented satiric funfest.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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