PlanetLear, a one-man show being performed at Smokebrush, is the quintessential grab-bag of post-modern multimedia theater. You get it all: live performance, pre-recorded audio and visual performance, puppetry, even a small shadow play.
Thaddeus Phillips performs such a seamless show, singlehandedly playing a multi-male, multi-female character production, it makes me wonder why a play should be performed any other way.
Every prop is utilized to its maximum potential. Golf clubs are golf clubs, then later serve as bars on a prison cell. Inanimate objects are skillfully transformed into people and pets. A can of shaving cream becomes a character, six golf balls become six dogs, all infused with a quirky character by the maniacal musings of Phillips, a master of make-believe.
Phillips' transformations from one character to the next are flawlessly calibrated, using such subtle changes of voice and prop that we as an audience don't miss a beat. He personifies each inanimate object with conviction, leaving no doubt that, yes, that golf ball is now ... a dog!
Loosely based on William Shakespeare's King Lear, the play offers some interesting modern and international interpretive twists. Phillips and Director Jeremy Wilhelm, both graduates of Colorado College, have managed to construct a multi-purpose stage design that takes us around the globe. The set miraculously transforms from a golf course to a dining area, to a ship on the sea, and finally, to a graveyard.
As we travel across a broad band of the physical horizon, we are taken to the vast arena of emotional states as well. Phillips weaves us deftly from comedy to the darkest pits of human tragedy with palpable grace. The purest entertainment value comes from just watching the actor do his thing like a man possessed. He indulges so much into the sappy melodrama, it becomes almost like a bad car wreck you can't help but stare at. At one point he obsessively strokes the hair of the puppet's head so gently and lovingly, it's fairly scary, yet, it's brave.
Phillips' physical prowess is also impressive. He can play two characters conversing in a tennis match--like switcharoo, and he can play two characters at once -- his full body as one person while animating one hand and arm as an extension of the other. Bizarre, but believable.
The production is enriched by an original musical score by Morgan Phillips that deepens the mood while occasionally supplying a personality of its own. It also helps express the actions of objects in the play, such as when a golf ball is hit. The sound helps us conceive how far it is flung.
The seed of this production was conceived several years ago and has taken on several manifestations. There are still a few wrinkles to be ironed out and improvements to be made. I would like to see a more air-tight version of the videotaped piece shown at the beginning of the performance. The video had a flashing white-light flicker-frame effect, which, although a current film fad, seemed a stretch for this piece. A few snares are apparent in the volume of the audio performance. Still, it's a pleasure to be privy to such an impressive performance in progress. Phillips truly helps us "look upon the mystery of things, as if we were God's spies."