Thaddeus Phillips, that wizard of stagecraft, has done it again. A Billion Nights on Earth is a whimsical tribute to the cosmos, to fatherhood, and to a child’s imagination. Long ago he gave us ingenious and witty Shakespeare productions out of a suitcase (memorable: Goneril, King Lear’s vicious daughter, was played by a red high heel).
He then moved on to video inserted into stage productions (memorable: complicated parodies of Latin American telenovelas) and the dazzling Red-eye to Havre De Grace, about the death of Edgar Allen Poe (memorable: his inventive use of the insides of a grand piano). But most memorable is a work of bizarro genius, The Incredibly Dangerous Astonishing Lucrative and Potentially True Adventure of Barry Seal, in which Phillips played the most endearing CIA agent ever and, as part of the show’s set design, hung cars from poles. If Seal’s name sounds familiar, it may be because Tom Cruise is about to play him in an upcoming film.
I miss seeing Phillips onstage, but in A Billion Nights on Earth he directs, aided by his wife, Tatiana Mallarino, and his co-designer, Steven Dufala. Dufala’s another notable name: he’s half of the multidisciplinary artist team the Dufala Brothers and won an Obie Award for his design work on the Pig Iron-heavy Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines.
Up all night
The production opens as a young boy in blue-striped pajamas (Winslow Fegley) looks out his dormer window at the sky. His father, also in blue-striped pajamas (Michael Fegley) calls up to him, “GO TO SLEEP!” Dad’s trying to work at his drawing board and drink his much-microwaved coffee.
When it is discovered that Winslow’s stuffed whale — without which he cannot sleep — is missing, his father offers a nearby stuffed squirrel and stuffed penguin as replacements. (The penguin will make an adorable reappearance). Searches for the whale ensue, both awake and dreaming. Winslow is a kind of small, sweet Ahab — and he’s on a mission.
When he opens the refrigerator for some milk, he discovers that it opens onto a glacial landscape. He steps in and closes the door behind him. (I confess I had a maternal bad moment then, but no need for worry, since here comes Dad to join him in their cosmic adventures.)
We get some nifty breakdancing by Winslow (the musical background changes in amusing ways) and some clever costumes (Jon Avramov) as pajamas yield to parkas and Chinese-food containers become backpacks.
Phillips clearly loves being his four-year-old son’s father, and his art has been inspired by his child’s sense of wonder.