Thaddeus Phillips in Zoo Motel
Thaddeus Phillips in Zoo Motel Credit: Courtesy the artist

Even before the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week, the desire to get away from this current hellscape was strong in many of us. Cooped up, fed up, scared, confused, and angry, I’ve been veering between doomscrolling and fantasizing about a Yeatsian bucolic escape. Whether “peace comes dropping slow” or pours down like a waterfall, I’ll take it. (BRB: looking up YouTube tutorials on how to make a cabin from clay and wattles.)

Most of us (but not enough of us, clearly) aren’t going anywhere right now. Which is why two virtual solo pieces on the virtues of connecting—with ourselves, with each other, and with the past and future—offer some respite.

Zoo Motel, presented through Links Hall, streams live in real time from Cajicá, Colombia, near Bogotá, where creator-performer Thaddeus Phillips has his studio. The Journey, presented through Chicago Shakespeare, comes to us (also in a livestream) from the rural Scottish home of mentalist-performer Scott Silven.

Both shows are available to limited audiences per performance, and both require a level of participation from viewers. But with such charming tour guides, it’s easy to surrender to their gentle requests for interaction.

In Zoo Motel, Phillips is a guest in the eponymous establishment, where the walls are covered with paintings suggestive of both catastrophe (the Titanic) and the yearning for communication and connections (the “golden record” sent into space with the Voyager in 1977, a now-gone payphone in the middle of the Mojave Desert, 12 miles from the nearest paved road). 

The conceit is that Phillips is himself stranded in the motel, in which the rest of us are also “guests.” Before logging into the Zoom performance, you can download a room key and an “evacuation map” of the premises, which comes into play in a card trick later in the show. (Steve Cuiffo is credited with the magic design.) He is, as he tells us, supposed to be heading to Spain to direct “this theater play about the end of the world.” But apocalypse, like live theater, can wait—at least until he tells us a few tales about the objects depicted in the room (designed by Steven Dufala). 

The most poignant of these is probably the Otsuchi “wind telephone,” a glass-paneled booth housing a disconnected rotary phone, erected by Itaru Sasaki in his hilltop garden after his cousin died in 2010. A year later, Sasaki’s town lost ten percent of its population in a tsunami following an earthquake (the same one that caused the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor). Sasaki decided to open his garden to those who wished to place calls to deceased loved ones, and an estimated 10,000 people made the trek there within three years of the disaster.

Phillips takes some side trips into his family history, using playing cards to illustrate the story of his grandfather, Abe Schiller, who earned the nickname “Mr. Las Vegas” when he moved from Detroit (where he had been active in local organized crime) to doing PR for the Flamingo Hotel, which led to a hairy encounter with mobster Bugsy Siegel, recounted by Phillips. (He never knew his grandfather, but used some of this material in a 2007 piece, Flamingo/Winnebago, presented through his company, Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental.)

His grandfather’s embrace of the American west (he also had the nickname “The Jewish Cowboy,” and his grandson dons a western-style shirt evocative of one worn by Abe in a family photo) suggests that reinvention is key to survival. But a “trip” to a drive-in to see The Wizard of Oz also reminds us that there’s, well, no place like home. Even as we’re driven apart by the pandemic, we long to connect with those we’ve lost and those we can only see and hear through electronic devices.

Zoo Motel, directed by Tatiana Mallarino, gets a tad homiletic at points, while also tending to jump away from a story just as a deeper point peeks out over the thematic horizon. But Phillips is a thoroughly charming presence, and even if our connection with other audience members in the Zoom motel setting is spotty, it’s a welcome reminder of how much the other people around us add to the experience of watching theater unfold.

Scott Silven in <i>The Journey</i>
Scott Silven in The JourneyCredit: David Wilkinson

The Journey

That connection is much more direct and explicit in The Journey. Silven’s show (for which audience members/participants need a microphone, camera, and ideally headphones) also leans into the homiletic, but with more input from the audience. We see each other projected onto the walls of Silven’s Scottish studio, where various objects (a locked wooden box, a pile of rocks reminiscent of the stone cairns dotting the countryside outside his door) eventually feature into the story, connecting up seemingly disparate elements. Audience members are also asked to bring an object of their own to the show, along with blank paper and a black marker.

I will admit to being a bit emotionally primed for this show: I saw it on the anniversary of my sister’s passing, and a ring that once belonged to her ended up being one of the audience objects Silven selected for crafting this series of connections. Certainly we’ve been spoiled with great “up close” magicians and mentalists in Chicago for decades, but that doesn’t take away from the astonishing skill that Silven displays here. (If you can figure out how he does it, keep it to yourself. Like Fox Mulder in The X-Files, I want to believe.)

Woven into the series of audience-centered interludes is the story of Callie, a traveler and Rip Van Winkle-like figure that Silven claims is an old folk tale. I haven’t found the provenance of that story, but the name has echoes of Cailleach, a “divine hag” associated in Scottish mythology with Beira, the queen of winter. Beira’s habit of dropping stones from her basket as she walks around is, according to legend, how the hills and mountains came to be. Cailleach is also the subject of a gorgeous Irish poem about aging, dating from the eighth or ninth century.

Silven too is dropping pebbles of insight for us as the show (directed by Allie Winton Butler, designed by Jeff Sugg, and written by Rob Drummond) unfolds. Forced by the pandemic to curtail his international travel (we see a boarding pass from his last live tour during one bit), his show seems to exist as much for him to reconnect with his roots as it does to remind us of what matters in our own lives. 

If he leans a bit heavily from time to time on the warm and fuzzy—well, I can’t say that impulse was unwelcome after a nightmarish week of failed coups nationally and a day filled with reminders of personal loss. One hopes that Silven can bring his work to Chicago live and in person once this pandemic has passed. Until then, if you’ve got the time, money, and emotional bandwidth to open yourself up to it, The Journey is a lovely reprieve (complete with gorgeous video footage of Silven walking around the Scottish terrain) from the doomscrolling. 

Just bring your own clay and wattles.  v