When experimental multimedia theater performer and playwright Thaddeus Phillips premieres The Incredibly Dangerous Astonishing Lucrative and Potentially TRUE Adventures of Barry Seal on Thursday at FringeArts, he'll be showing how far he's come from his start in Philadelphia.
This colorful first segment of the tale of the most notorious drug smuggler in U.S. history (whose second, lengthier portion, Alias Ellis Mackenzie, will run during September's Fringe Festival) features a stage full of beat-up Cadillac parts and splashy '80s costuming. In September, the stage will be crammed with nearly a dozen actors filming a live TV show, complete with camera rigs.
All this is a far cry from 1996's Shakespeare's Storms, in which Phillips married The Tempest and King Lear with nothing but a cast of Barbie dolls, a suitcase, and a kiddie wading pool.
"You know, Nick actually borrowed a curtain from my basement for the first Fringe," says Phillips of FringeArts chieftain Nick Stuccio, "and now he's a major supporter of my work - like letting me just bring him a crazy idea on a napkin, and then a year later, there it is onstage."
Stuccio seconds that. "FringeArts and Thaddeus grew up together. He's currently tied for the most presented artist at FringeArts. Thaddeus is part of our DNA. Without him, we would be a different organization."
Phillips' smart, snarky, hybrid productions have been Fringe must-sees that helped redefine and refine festival's brand: Latin-flavored comic travelogues 17 Border Crossings, Flamingo/Winnebago, and ¡El Conquistador!; spare, spooky locally themed enterprises such as the Edgar Allan Poe death trip Red-Eye to Havre de Grace. All done under Phillips' Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental banner, each show was a mix of innovative stage elements based on worldly travels, his merry meeting of found and original texts, and his blurring of reality and wild fiction - event theater of the highest order.
"I think I'm just as frantic now as I was in the past," he says, "only with each production, it's just on a bigger scale."
Moving between homes in Bogotá, Colombia, and Philadelphia ("easier than you think," says Phillips) hasn't made his brand of multi-discipline fourth-wall-busting theater any less restless. He moved to Colombia to be close to the family of his wife, playwright Tatiana Mallarino (they have a son, 2), but life in Bogota got more complicated when he got a gig on Colombian TV playing the notorious, mysterious drug smuggler-turned undercover informant Barry Seal (also known by his alias, Ellis Mackenzie) on the MundoFox show, Alias El Mexicano.
"I auditioned for a role on a show with 'Ninja' in the title and wasn't cast, but my tape remained at FoxTelecolombia. When they needed a gringo to play Seal, they remembered my tape and cast me because they needed someone ASAP," he says with a laugh, mentioning that since Alias El Mexicano, he's won roles as an FBI agent in El Capo 3, Celia Cruz's record producer in Celia, and a CIA operative in Netflix's forthcoming Narcos.
The dual character of Seal/Mackenzie got under Phillips' skin (as it did with Dennis Hopper, who played Seal in 1991's Doublecrossed, and Tom Cruise, who is set to play him in a biopic, Mena). Seal was an adventurous Baton Rouge., La.-born pilot (TWA's youngest) who ran arms to Cuba with the CIA, flew undetectable smuggling routes for the Medellin Cartel's cocaine trade, and arranged several sting operations during the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1986, not long before he was set to sting the cartel's Pablo Escobar, Seal was shot to death in his Cadillac Fleetwood in Baton Rouge.
Ever the adventurer himself, Phillips began seeing the Seal he played on television as one of his own hybrid theater escapades. "At first, I only saw the September show, a large- scale work with a Spanish-speaking television crew onstage with actors filming a show," he said of staging "the mad work" of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants TV production he got to know while filming Alias El Mexicano.
With the September show evolving, the Barry Seal production became simpler. "As I did more research on Seal, we found that we needed to make the May thing an epilogue to the September show as well as a character study of Seal," Phillips says, describing a cinematic structure in which most of the plot is conveyed through a series of phone calls.
While working with set designer Jeff Becker, Phillips visited the Salvation Army halfway house in Baton Rouge where Seal was assassinated, and the theatrical space for his production - something spare and spooky - came into play, as did having a live disc jockey on stage.
"Having a DJ is just so odd, haunting, perfect, and cool that we had to go to a scrap yard and get pieces of an old Cadillac to re-create the idea of Barry Seal's white Cadillac." Oddly enough, the larger-scale show, with 11 bilingual cast members, quick-moving sets, and huge camera cranes filming the show-within-a-show out of sequence ("to experience television production as actors do") was easier to conceive and stage than the Barry Seal show; thinking and acting more sparely is a greater, if equally rewarding, challenge.
"Becker and I, we're talking about ideas of transformations here," says Phillips. "I am very interested in exploring the real power of theater, and I find that sparse and open shows really allow for an active engagement and unique experience for audiences, as we are only presenting the base ideas that the imagination fills in otherwise."
The things Phillips learned in creating both shows should be as enlightening for audiences as they were frightening for him. "I've learned totally crazy things about people in the U.S. government that we'll try to leak out in both works, just to paint a picture of how insane and corrupt the drug wars are. You'll see the possibilities of creating new theatrical languages with putting a TV crew on stage, shooting something where you imagine what it is rather than seeing the actual shot. This could shed light on telling a story that bleeds the line between history, truth, and propaganda."
The Incredibly Dangerous Astonishing Lucrative and Potentially Completely TRUE Adventures of Barry Seal
8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd.
215-413-1318 or fringearts.comEndText