The nighttime sky stretches out above us, revealing a funky, surreal firmament, a swirl of colors, bright stars, and planets that look a little like eyeballs. Below, the sea's surface is broken by violent waves.
A father plunges in after his son abandons their makeshift raft of tree branches and twigs. They plunge deeper and deeper under the waves and seem to be swallowed up.
Welcome to the wondrous world of A Billion Nights on Earth, a family fantasy adventure about a little boy and his father who go on an inter-dimensional quest to recover a lost toy. It premieres Thursday as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival and runs for six performances through Sept. 17 at FringeArts on Columbus Boulevard in Old City.
Devised by actor/director/playwright Thaddeus Phillips and designer Steven Dufala, A Billion Nights on Earth achieves its magic through the most traditional, low-tech effects imaginable. The sky and sea are colored swaths of cotton stretched out on simple frames, the waves the effect of two stagehands manipulating the fabric. The most high-tech effect is a projector that throws the colorful firmament onto the top sheet.
"I devised the show after I became inspired by kabuki theater," Phillips said, referring to the traditional form of stylized dance-drama practiced for centuries in Japan. Using a specially built minimalist black set as a canvas, Phillips and his crew create fantastical scenes using a few stylized props, lights and sound effects. "It's so exciting how we are able to make the stage transform before your eyes from an airport to a cave or from land to the sea," said Phillips.
A Denver native who lived in Philadelphia for several years in the late 2000s, Phillips has carved a niche in the theater world with wildly inventive nontraditional works such as Ankomsten, ¡El Conquistador!, and The Incredibly Dangerous Astonishing Lucrative and Potentially TRUE Adventures of Barry Seal that rely more on movement, music, and improvisation than written text. He was last at the Fringe in 2015, when he debuted Alias Ellis Mackenzie.
Now based in Bogotá, Colombia, where he lives with his wife, actor Tatiana Mallarino, and their 4-year-old son, Rafael, Phillips may be familiar to TV fans for his supporting role as a CIA officer on Netflix's Narcos. He said he was inspired to create his first family show after watching his son at play and realizing the profundity and power of children's imagination. "I wanted to do a piece that I could bring my son to," said the playwright.
Phillips said he and Dufala decided early on that they would create A Billion Nights on Earth without using digital effects, video, or other computer-age wizardry. Instead, they conceived of the show as "an illustrated storybook or a pop-up book where the pages are constantly turning."
To achieve a storybook effect, they knew they would need very clever set design, said Dufala, a South Jersey native who works primarily as a sculptor and installation artist. So was born the show's kabuki-inspired black set, a deceptively simple construction that is outfitted with dozens of little tricks, like folding panels that transform the space into a subway station or a forest. "It's cool because the set is kind of a nowhere, a no-place, so it takes very little to make you go somewhere," said Dufala, 40, who also designed the remarkable set for another Fringe play, Geoff Sobelle's Home. "There is very selective visual information. But they really pop."
Dufala said the show uses iconic objects to signal scene changes. "Say at one point the kid wanders out … and then pop, you see a little campfire appear and a backpack next to it, and you start to hear sounds that suggest you're in the woods," said Dufala, "but just a second earlier you were in the ocean."
The creators also played with scale, as in an early scene when the two characters walk into a refrigerator, past enormous food packages, and into a wormhole of sorts.
Dufala and Phillips won't disclose too much about the props or the more fantastical elements of the story, but Phillips assures me every element of the show been approved by his harshest critic, his son.
Billion Nights on Earth features just two performers, Allentown actor Michael Fegley and his actual 8-year-old son Winslow in his professional acting debut.
So what exactly is A Billion Nights on Earth all about?
"The story is rather simple, and then it takes on these fantastic proportions," said père Fegley.
The play opens in Winslow's bedroom. It's bedtime, but the boy can't sleep. "He won't go to bed because he's worried about his favorite stuffed animal, his whale," said Fegley. "He can't find it, and it's his security object, his security blanket."
When Winslow goes to get a glass of milk, he begins to hear a whale song. "It's a very magical show. You get to walk through a fridge that takes you through a portal" into a magical dimension, Winslow Fegley said during a rehearsal break. "Working with Thaddeus and Steven has been so much fun." His father agreed most heartily.
Unlike traditional script-based plays, A Billion Nights on Earth wasn't created with pen and paper, he said: "The way Thaddeus and Steven work is really quite thrilling. We would work on ideas as they would come up from rehearsal. And everyone contributed." Including Thaddeus' son Rafael?
"Oh, yes. He was kind of the main consultant on the show," said Dufala.