Considering the statistics crowding the national headlines on immigrant arrivals, legally or legally, 17 border crossings don’t sound like much, but thinking that way would severely underestimate 17 Border Crossings, written and performed by Thaddeus Phillips and directed by Tatiana Mallarino.
Assembled not too long ago and seen elsewhere, it arrives at New York Theatre Workshop when concentration on the subject appears to be reaching a peak that will likely rise even higher as weeks and months go by. It should be pointed out, however, that only two of the border crossings occur at the Mexican border, and Phillips keeps them to the last two—the first a 2018 crossing to Mexico, the second a 2018 crossing to the States.
Knowing he must deal with the huge (”yuge”?) domestic problem facing the nation now, Phillips does, but the origin of his intermissionless piece looks to be the borders he’s crossed, mostly for work, in his travels between 1991 and this year. They include crossings by train, plane, bus, ferry, river, chairlift(!), boat, moto-taxi, and tunnel between and among Hungary to Serbia, Angola to London, Venezuela to Colombia, East Mostar to West Mostar, Israel to Jordan, Syria to Greece, and Holland to France by way of Belgium. And those are just the initial eight.
Phillips describes them all, and if it isn’t already clear, he does this in a play—is it play?—that is nothing if not utterly unique, a piece that from start to finish radiates a gritty charm. Throughout, it’s evident he made most of the crossings himself. (Well, probably in the company of others on trains and boats and planes). Other crossings, he either witnessed or heard tell of, such as one involving a crossing that began by plane but ended for its traveler before the plane landed. That one is a leading candidate for most startling.
It may be misleading to report that tour-guide Phillips “describes” his peregrinations. It’s more accurate to say he acts them out in stage crossings and criss-crossings that far exceed 17. For his fast-moving monologue, he’s endlessly rearranging a table and a red chair and raising and lowering a lighting bar hanging from the ceiling. (He designed the set, David Todaro the lighting and innumerable light changes, and Robert Kaplowitz the evocative sound and original music.) In almost constant motion he’s running or crawling across the stage or lying supine or mounting inclines or turning the table on its side so he can crouch by it or righting it to sit at it.
With all the rhetoric about border patrols and border guards filling stateside ears nowadays, the most illuminating aspect of 17 Border Crossings might be his pointing out how conditions can be noticeably different from border to border. Phillips gets laughs when he observes that the sexiest guards are the women holding forth at the station between Eilat and Aquaba. Other crossings can be tedious, sinister, anxiety-producing. At least once he’s detained for hours and then sent on his way with no explanation of why he was held or why he’s been dismissed.
Phillips’ important effect is providing a broader picture of how borders are policed (or insufficiently policed) not just in this country but around the globe. It’s a helpful lesson at a time when so much is argued about controlling borders and yet so much remains perplexing. Not that Phillips offers any suggestions for improvements. That’s not his mission. He’s only giving an excellent, thought-provoking travel report.
Having regarded 17 Border Crossings unique, I’ve been trying to remember any antecedents. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), which takes place along the Texas-Mexico border, is one, although entirely different in purpose from Phillips’ piece. Another unlike this one but vaguely reminiscent is Paradise Now, the 1968 offering from The Living Theater. During the rowdy action scantily-dressed cast members ambled through the aisles telling audience members, “I cannot travel without a passport.” Perhaps the overlapping ingredient there is Phillips’ obviously heavily stamped passport.
And speaking of passports, Phillips begins his urgent chat—after declaiming much of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V—by recounting the history of passports from their 1414 inception. Another unexpected lesson on something few people likely wonder about.
One more consequence 17 Border Crossings might prompt is for spectators to flash on memories of their own border crossings. A recollection for me was a life-changing August 1962 crossing I made between East Berlin and West Berlin and back again on the same day. But those are crossings for another time. Right now the pressings ones are Phillips’. They’re just about imperative.
17 Border Crossings opened April 15, 2019, at New York Theatre Workshop and runs through May 12. Tickets and information: nytw.org