By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
A work of bizarro genius, The Incredibly Dangerous Astonishing Lucrative and Potentially True Adventure of Barry Seal, at Fringe Arts only through Saturday, is not to be missed. Thaddeus Phillips gives us a brilliant, hilarious theater installation/conspiracy theory/telenovela/true-life drama about the drug smuggler and CIA agent named Barry Seal.
If you google Barry Seal, you'll discover that not only was he a real person, but there are conflicting theories about his death: was he assassinated by the Medellin drug cartel in Nicaragua? Or by the CIA, then knee-deep in 1986 in the Sandanista scandal, protecting Jeb Bush (yes, the very same Jeb Bush now running for president) and Oliver North?
But none of this is the point of Phillips' play: it's the wild and adventurous life, not the death, of this wheeler-dealer who recites Goodnight Moon to his kids on the phone. As Phillips plays him, Seal may be the most endearing drug smuggler/CIA agent you've never met.
Decked out in aviator sunglasses and a sleaze suit with a Louisiana accent, Seal has been sentenced to six months community service, stuck in a Salvation Army dorm. He shares a room with a pathetic guy who's a Kennedy assassination theorist, who lives in his bathrobe and hi-tops (played by Mario Cotto, who also DJs the show's soundscape). Seal is puzzled at this punishment, since "the last 10,000 lbs of cocaine I brought into the middle district of Louisiana, I did it without leaving the house."
Phones are big feature of Barry Seal's life and of the show: a payphone on the corner, a $22 per minute satellite phone which Seal uses to order pizza, a wall phone in the lobby of the Salvation Army, an emergency red dial phone inside a box marked DEA. This is a guy who has both the Vice President's phone number as well as Noriega's. The conversations are the script.
The FringeArts' stage is bare except for a central rig with a high platform, serving as the dorm room (wait until you see the conversion to beds—another of those terrific, simple inventions that makes you grin with the sheer pleasure of being in a theater. Jeff Becker designed the clever set, which includes pieces of Fleetwood Cadillac.
The prequel to this show was probably Phillips' 2010 El Conquistador!, also about telanovelas in South America. The sequel to this show will be his big Fringe show this fall called Alias Ellis MacKenzie, especially since, in true telenovela style, the story continues. I can't wait.
Fringe Arts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd. Through May 16. Tickets $25. Information:215-413-1318 or www.fringearts.com