Zoo Motel? Zoom-hotel? Get it? Well, congratulations if you did, because you have essentially got all there is to get about Thaddeus Phillips’ new solo show. The esoteric American theatre-maker is currently in Colombia and live-streaming his latest work over Zoom from a small village north of Bogota to worldwide audiences of just 21 at a time. And impish but essentially inconsequential wordplay of the title is a neat encapsulation of the entire hour. Zoo Motel is full of fun, frilly ideas that never reach as deep as they portend to. It flatters to deceive.
The over-arching concept is a good one. You and your twenty fellow audience-members are guests staying at a hotel. You log in to the Zoom meeting, and are greeted by a check-in clerk, who checks you have everything you need – before the event starts, you are asked to print off a few sheets of paper and grab a deck of cards from somewhere – and ushers you to your rooms. I am in 20. Phillips, who we spy on throughout, is two doors down in 18.
It is an interesting idea. The “pivot to online” that much of the industry has been forced to make this year has been a particular challenge for solo performers whose work relies on audience interaction and doesn’t necessarily fit into an easily defined box – the magicians and the performance artists and the show-and-tell storysmiths. Phillips’ solution, backed up by some technical wizardry and surprisingly good WiFi for rural Colombia, is an entertaining, original one.
This is more Hotel California than Premier Inn, though. You can check-in any time you like, but you can never leave – a fact realised early on as the rotating camera tracks around Phillips’ room, only to reveal that the door through which he entered has disappeared. He is trapped in limbo, with only his thoughts, his fears, and a few random objects – a model of the Titanic, a painting of a phone booth in the middle of a desert (the Mojave Desert Phone Booth – look it up), and one of those waving Chinese cats (a maneki-neko, as I have just discovered).
These provide the stimuli for a jumbled, juxtaposed collection of stories and skits that Phillips fills up an hour-and-a-bit with. There’s a shaggy dog story about his grandfather – a wheeling-dealing Mr Las Vegas – that Phillips drags out while performing a card trick. There’s a bit about him being stuck on a plane that never lands. There’s a bit with a puppet. There’s a bit about the Voyager spacecraft and its golden record. There’s about seven different endings. Zoo Motel quasi-cryptically jumps about all over the place – it reminded me strongly of one of Shôn Dale-Jones’ Hoipolloi shows – but never really lands on anything long enough for any lasting meaning.
What it does do, though, is look great. With the help of designer Steven Dufala, director Tatiana Mallarino, and magician Steve Cuiffo, Phillips has created a dizzying, disorientating display of online stagecraft (Zoomcraft, anyone?), stuffed full of illusions and imagination. It feels like the camera never stops moving, sliding between scenes, gliding through windows, and playing with impossible angles throughout. It is very dream-like, and sets the head spinning when you try to think about it could possibly be achieved – even when Phillips reveals the extraordinary device used to conjure it all up post-show.
On a practical level, Zoo Motel is an exemplar of how unconventional theatremakers can still create bold, boundary-breaking shows online. On a philosophical level, though, it disappoints with its lack of depth. The central metaphor – in case you didn’t get it, being stuck in a hotel room without a door equals being stuck with nothing to do during a global pandemic – is a promising one. But it is never adequately explored. Phillips indulges his scatty side instead, and the result is a stylishly staged show that says very little.
Zoo Motel is available online until 30th January 2020. More info and tickets here.