Review of 17 Border Crossings at New York Theatre Workshop

  • Our critic's rating:
    April 16, 2019
    Review by:

    17 Border Crossings, now at New York Theatre Workshop, is not a light-hearted romp. It is, as the title suggests, a recital of, well, 17 Border crossings. Thanks to Thaddeus Phillips’ skill as a storyteller (he is also credited with the set design: one chair, one table and one cup), these border crossings are vivid. Thanks to the superb lighting design by David Todaro, these events crackle with life.

    Like Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, this presentation is not a play so much as it is a TED Talk. Albeit a longer one with some great visuals. Phillips begins with a history lesson. The origins of the PassPort goes back to the 15th century when a large document rolled up and bestowed on the fortunate person would assure safe passage under protection of the local royalty. Over time the passport was reduced in size by simply folding – this is how books were originally created and remains the fashion. In the 1800’s the fold was into 32nds – and this is what was determined to be the standard as of 1920 when the League of Nations declared it so.

    French is still the official language of the passport. It has 32 pages. A US Passport can get you almost anywhere. An Iranian passport – not so much. Since the 1980’s passports have been outfitted with RfiD Chip (Radio Frequency Identification Chip) that, through a global GPS tracking system, can locate your passport. Disabling it would only require you to toss it in a microwave.

    There is a personal note from the Secretary of State of The United States of America on the first page. In addition, there are pages and pages of scenes from our past – nature scenes, locomotives, farmers and ranchers (Oklahoma anyone?). There are 10 quotes about our great country (8 men, one woman and one quote from the Mohawk Tribe.)

    If nothing else this show will send you scurrying to your own passport pronto.

    As to the rest of the evening? Well, it is a high speed shuttle from one border crossing to another. Phillips travels by every mode of transportation you can imagine. Why he travels or what he does when he gets to his destination – who knows? Perhaps his is a peripatetic existence in the extreme. Planes, trains and even his own mind while tripping on Yaje as a guest of a shaman in Columbia. Phillips rarely pauses, but when he does – and one wishes he did more often – his observations are simple. He delivers the facts – people are crossing borders so that they can feed their families, or be re-united with them. People have been crossing borders ever since borders were created. Why create a border if no one will breach it?

    There is no order, geographically or chronologically, to these crossings. There is no reason for these crossings. Ergo there is no trail to follow. The only way you can keep track is by following the insert in the program that lists the crossings. Even then it is a bit dodgy as they begin to blend together, and you may start counting them around #6 just to steady yourself. Mr. Phillips apparently just wants us to know he has been at all these crossings. His report is sort of a PSA announcement. While there is no plot or story, there is a message: There are no guarantees when you are exiting or entering a country – even if the country you are entering is your own. Life on this planet depends on the whims of the gate keepers. Proceed at your own risk.

    On the other hand, you could just stay home.

    (Photo by Johanna Austin)

    "Mr. Phillips, whose earlier works include Capsule 33 and Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, is an ingratiating writer and performer. He needs little by way of props to evoke a trip on a ferry crossing the Mediterranean, riding shotgun on a Colombian motorcycle taxi or trying to sleep in a cramped compartment on a Balkan Express train. He also eases in and out of different languages, peppering the script with Spanish, Portuguese, Czech and French, among others. Throughout, the staging by Tatiana Mallarino (Mr. Phillips’s wife) moves with a fluidity at odds with the travel mishaps, which are related with dry humor."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Times

    "A last-minute replacement in New York Theatre Workshop's season, 17 Border Crossings might seem to have been inspired by current geopolitical crises like Brexit and the Great Wall of Trump, but Phillips and his wife and director, Tatiana Mallarino, have been touring with the show for years. When it last played New York City in 2015, the world was a different place, and despite some timely additions—notably a chaotic 2019 crossing between Venezuela and Colombia—the show too rarely seems urgent. Unlike some of the born-on-the-wrong-side folks he meets along the way, it's clear that the Passenger, with his U.S. passport, will always make it through. Where's the drama in that?"
    Raven Snook for Time Out New York

    "Tatiana Mallarino’s clever staging and Phillips’ low-fi set design, which converts a horizontal light bar into everything from a train to a plane to various neon-lit interrogation rooms, lend a greater degree of theatricality to the proceedings. (Phillips was similarly clever with his staging of Edgar Allan Poe’s final days in the 2014 NYTW production Red-Eye to Havre de Grace.) The souped-up production can only do so much, though: Despite the 90-minute running time, you may find yourself counting down just how many more crossings there are still to go before the final curtain."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap