Some topical theater works date quickly as the world changes around them. Others come around again as events bring the world’s attention back to certain issues. The reaction to “17 Border Crossings,” Thaddeus Phillips’ 2012 one-man show, is going through a new phase as issues of immigration and refugee rights dominate the headlines.
“A lot of the lines have a whole new level of meaning, without us doing anything,” Phillips said. “That’s been interesting, to explore the work in a different context.”
“17 Border Crossings,” which comes to the Wharton Center Sunday, is based in part on Phillips’ travels in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Phillips explores the differences in travel in Europe, North America and the Middle East, including border crossings by plane, boat and tunnel.
“The premise of the show is very simple. It’s different accounts of crossing borders,” he said. “It kind of has a standup comedy feel, but then it turns to more serious things that have happened to people who have tried to cross borders.”
The one-man-show is a mix of travelogue, live theater and commentary on the process of traveling between countries.
“The majority of crossings are based on real crossings that I did, but we’ve transformed them into second person,” Phillips explained. “You are now on this weird journey. It lifts it away from the personal, even though they’re completely personal and highly detailed. Those personal crossings have been staged in a very theatrical way, using just a table and chair and a bar of lights.”
Phillips also draws on the experiences of others to reflect on those who cross borders not by choice, but out of necessity.
“When I sit at the desk, in more of a monologue format, I tell stories from the news or other interesting stories that make the show about everyone,” he said. “It gives you the perspective of other people trying to get out of their situations.”
Some border crossings reflect a particular era. A pre-European Union crossing from Germany to Holland includes an encounter with border police. Other times, Phillips adjusts the show to reflect changes in countries’ travel policies.
“I’ve started having U.S. border agents take away the character’s cell phone, because that’s something we heard they were doing,” Phillips said.
Phillips finds that audience reactions have shifted over time in response to political events. A U.S.-to-Mexico crossing set in Newark’s Liberty International Airport, for example, is now colored by President Trump’s fraught relationship with our southern neighbors.
“Some lines in there have much more resonance,” Phillips said. “It’s about borders all over the world, so it takes on different meanings at different times.”
Phillips insists that his work isn’t “explicitly political,” but that it draws on the climate around him.
“We did a piece about tourism and terrorism right after 9/11. And I’ve done a piece about driving a Winnebago fueled by fryer grease from fast food restaurants, and it’s all about global warming and running out of oil,” he said. “But it’s not directly about that. You’re watching characters in situations that reflect those things. So in that sense, it’s a roundabout, poetic way to look at the world.”
“17 Border Crossings”
6:30 p.m. Sunday, March 26
Tickets start at $34.50/$18 students
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com