nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 30, 2006
In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic, risking having his ships sail over the edge of the world, and found America. In 2006, a poor farmer named Polonio journeys from his village somewhere in Colombia to the capital city of Bogota in hopes of becoming a television star. He almost sort of does fall over the edge of his world. And he lands at an apartment building, fittingly called the Nueva Mundo, where he gets a job working as the doorman. Polonio LOVES telenovelas, the wildly popular soap operas on Latin American TV. He spends all of his spare time trying to hook up his meager portable television set to an antenna, so that he can watch his favorite show. But on the security monitor, a real-life telenovela is about to unfold...
And that is ¡El Conquistador!, the adorable, funny, and spectacularly wise new solo show that Thaddeus Phillips has brought to New York Theatre Workshop. I've seen Phillips do Shakespeare's Tempest in a kiddie pool, by himself with just a few found objects as puppets—and it was the best rendition of that play I've ever seen—so nothing he accomplishes here truly surprised me. But that doesn't mean I wasn't delighted and astonished moment to moment in this beautifully crafted, authentically inventive work of theatre. Phillips doesn't stop at having Polonio be Columbus: everyone in the room is invited to take a journey full of unexpected turns and outcomes in ¡El Conquistador!
For starters, except for a brief prologue, Phillips (who is from Denver) performs the entire piece in Spanish. I'll admit that some people in the audience were laughing at lines I didn't understand (I am, sadly, fluent only in English—if that). But Phillips is so vivid and robust a presence that we're never at sea during the show; we hardly need the occasional supertitles to keep up.
The set, which he designed, is a bit of a marvel in itself: a plexiglas frame that plays a variety of roles throughout the play, plus the doorman's work station, which Phillips as Polonio moves around the stage to provide a shifting POV for himself and the audience. Each time he moves this piece, the projected backdrop moves with it, showing us parts of his doorman's world that we heretofore had not seen. And Phillips the live actor interacts with the projections, turning as if by magic into Phillips the video actor (and back again) as Polonio moves around his work space. Cool stuff, extremely well executed; Austin Switser did the video design.
As for being a solo show, well, though Phillips is the only actor on stage, he's actually joined by a very impressive ensemble—six stars of Colombian theatre and television who play the residents of Polonio's building. Together, this sextet play out a set of scenarios that would make any (melo)dramatist turn green with envy. Didier (Victor Mallarino), a vaguely sinister fellow who just might be a drug smuggler, is obsessed with beautiful young Johanna (Cristina Campuzano), the tenant whom Polonio falls in love with at first sight. Aminta (Tatiana Mallarino), a plain woman who works for a lady named Mrs. Josefina, wants to be more than friends with Polonio. Dashing man-about-town Mauricio (Luis Fernando Hoyos) throws loud, wild parties, much to the consternation of the lonely and cantankerous widow Beatriz (Helena Mallarino), who will later tell Polonio a tale about her long-lost twin sons that sounds like it could have been written by Shakespeare. (In The Comedy of Errors.) And there's a strange man fittingly called El Loco (Antonio Sanint).
Will Didier keep Johanna with him, or will he kill her? Will Polonio ever get to watch his beloved telenovela? Or will something more dangerous happen instead?
To give too much away would be a sin; this is a show that you will want to discover for yourself. All the stuff that makes us human—even the fairly reprehensible stuff that Columbus actually did as he claimed his new world for the King and Queen of Spain—is covered here, with the fearless, even reckless abandon that this play's name implies. Under Tatiana Mallarino's simpatico direction, Phillips gives a performance that's as graceful and moving and imperturbable as the greatest clown's; and oh yes, as profound as that, too. The script, which he co-wrote with Tatiana and Victor Mallarino, is witty and disarming and smart.
This is theatre of the most compelling and engaging sort, I highly recommend it. ¡El Conquistador! speaks to the conquering spirit in all of us, and urges us, I think, in whatever small way, to be courageous and to embrace whatever's out there for us. Even—or at least to start with—the brave new world unfolding before us on stage.