Theatrical Renaissance man Thaddeus Phillips rekindles the spirit of the legendary silent film star in his imaginative new play, ¡El Conquistador!
Known for his offbeat presence onstage, Phillips maintains his reputation for unorthodox theatrics. “We’re unorganized but also a lot more hip in many ways,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
A far cry from a traditional theater piece, ¡El Conquistador! manages to capture the essence of both a Latin American soap opera and a live foreign film.
Phillips, who plays the only character with a live stage presence, called the piece “a totally different kind of one-man show.” In a clever blend of reality and fantasy, the play also features eight Colombian soap stars seen by the audience via video feed.
The play originally debuted as a work-in-progress at the 2004 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and is now a finished production complete with newly filmed footage and a rotating mini-stage. Performances begin Feb. 16 and last through Feb. 18 at the Painted Bride Art Center located at 230 Vine St. in Olde City.
The lead role, played by Phillips, is a lovable Colombian peasant farmer named Polonio. After his crops are destroyed by American pesticides, Polonio leaves behind everything but his television and his cherished potted plant and heads to the “big city.” Dreaming of a charmed life as a stylish soap opera star, he is forced to settle for a job as a doorman in a swanky high rise apartment building.
Polonio must perform a variety of tasks to serve the demanding and eccentric residents of the building. He is soon drawn into their strange lives and a complicated tale of suspense, deceit, murder and redemption ensues.
Reminiscent of Chaplin, Polonio embodies the comical but downtrodden hero. “It’s great to have this Chaplin-esque kind of guy become the main protagonist,” said Phillips. “Chaplin always played the poor guy or the little guy who always manages to win in the end.”
The wacky residents also provide for much of the play’s humor. Portrayed by the Colombian actors, the residents’ scenes were filmed on location in Colombia. They are shown to the audience on a wall-sized video screen.
“I liked the idea of a doorman as kind of a duplicate character that sees what’s going on around him,” Phillips said. “It kind of allows the audience to look through his eyes and see these things.”
Although the tone of the play is mostly lighthearted and humorous, it explores several serious themes. These include travel, colonialism, cultural dislocation and class distinction.
Phillips specifically chose the Latin setting because it illustrated the conflict between the rural old world and the fast paced, modern new world.
“It’s kind of like an alternative reality,” he said of Latin American society. “The contrast there, I was just totally fascinated by it.”
After the show’s run in Philadelphia, ¡El Conquistador! will show in Pittsburgh, the Czech Republic, Scotland and finish off-Broadway in New York City.
Venuri Siriwardane can be reached at Venuri.Siriwardane@temple.edu.