Don’t know before you go

Thaddeus Phillips presents ‘Zoo Motel’

2 minute read
Coordinates unclear: Thaddeus Phillips in ‘Zoo Motel.’ (Photo by Rafael Esteban Phillips.)
Coordinates unclear: Thaddeus Phillips in ‘Zoo Motel.’ (Photo by Rafael Esteban Phillips.)

We don’t know much about the Zoo Motel. According to coordinates on the hotel’s stationary it exists somewhere in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Ticket buyers for the “Live Cinematic Theatre Play” by Thaddeus Phillips receive an email with instructions before check-in: print a hotel brochure, an evacuation plan, an “online drive-in” experience aid, and a room key. Also: procure a deck of cards by any means necessary. As I learned throughout the delightful hour-long show, it is best to come to Zoo Motel prepared.

We enter the lobby of the motel via Zoom. A Night Clerk (Philadelphia actor Newton Buchanan) checks us in and warms us up for what is to come. An assortment of bewildered attendees from around the world wave at each other.

After a brief orientation, a motel guest (Fringe favorite Thaddeus Phillips) enters his room to find that the door he came through no longer exists. Throughout the next hour, he enlists the other guests (the viewing participants) to help him find a way out. Along the way, stories, images, and symbols of human connections (such as the Mojave phone booth, the Voyager satellite, and the Wind Telephone of Otsuchi) remind us of our timeless need to communicate.

The absurdist plot doesn’t hold much weight. It doesn’t need to. In Phillips’s able hands, we accept every silly setup to enjoy one more story, one more card trick (designed by Steve Cuiffo), one more bit of practical theatrical magic adapted for the Zoom screen.

Phillips, cocreator and director Tatiana Mallarino, and their team have mastered the art of Zoom. The camera pans, set pieces float in, and lights change. Rather than place the limitations of live theater onto a webcast, they have made something surprising, magical, and theatrical in its own right. Steven Dufala’s interiors bend the mind and delight the eye, allowing Phillips to turn his one-room studio in Cajicá, Colombia, into a motel, a drive-in movie theater, an airplane, and more. It is in these moments of slow, camera-panning scene changes that we feel most like we are in a theater again.

Phillips sticks around on Zoom after the show to give audiences a brief tour of the space and to answer any questions. I was amazed at the peek behind the curtain and the insight into the extensive choreography that goes into recording and performing. At the same time, I wished I had left immediately after the curtain call, so the theatrical magic stay could stay with me just a little bit longer.

Image description: Thaddeus Phillips, with buzz-cut hair and a short beard and mustache, wearing a red long-sleeved shirt, points backwards toward a framed picture of a mountain backdrop with a silver phone booth in the foreground. He smiles while raising one eyebrow.

What, When, Where

Zoo Motel. By Thaddeus Phillips. Directed and cocreated by Tatiana Mallarino. Performed via Zoom through October 25, 2020. Tickets and more info at

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