nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 21, 2010
I have been a major fan of the theatre of Thaddeus Phillips for well over a decade. He seems to follow his own star, building shows that explore things that matter to him—shows that are wondrously idiosyncratic, awesome journeys into the hearts, minds, and souls of remarkable characters that are as much about paying attention and engaging in the moment as they are about whatever their more specific subject matter may be. I can't believe it's been four years since Phillips's last piece in New York, El Conquistador. Now, he's ensconced at the Barrow Street Theatre with a new show, Capsule 33, that—in its consideration of exactly what constitutes progress and in its unsparing, unsentimental humanism—is a worthy and appropriate successor to this venue's last tenant, the acclaimed revival of Our Town.
The protagonist of Capsule 33 is a Serbian scientist/professor named Milo who lives in the (eponymous) pod, located in Tokyo's Nakagin Tower. (The Tower is real, though Milo is fictional; see Wikipedia for info and a great photo.) The tale of how Milo ended up in Tokyo—involving conscription, at the age of 59, in not one but two opposing armies during the Yugoslav Civil Wars of the 1990s, along with a variety of other unfortunate and unlucky circumstances—is only slightly less improbable than the story of how Milo came to acquire his only companion, a yellow rubber duck named Fumio. (Phillips tells us in the show that this wild occurrence really happened, and it did: see this article from the Daily Mail online, but only if you don't mind ruining one of Capsule 33's most delicious surprises.)
In any event, Milo and Fumio live together in Capsule 33 in Nakagin Tower, which, we are told at the top of the show, is going to be demolished tomorrow. Unlike all of the other tenants, Milo has decided to go down with his homestead. Today, though, with the implosion imminent, he seems to be having second thoughts.
Not much actually happens in Capsule 33, as we follow Milo and Fumio through what may well be their final day in Tokyo/on Earth. Milo goes through his rigid routine—bathing, brushing his teeth, getting takeout for dinner, and so on—all the while ruminating on the kind of world that lets something as progressive and perfect as Nakagin Tower fall into disrepair and going back and forth about whether to go down with the ship or set off for uncharted waters elsewhere (for some reason he considers Brazil as a possible destination). Phillips portrays a few other characters in the course of the play, notably a member of the demolition crew set to take down the Tower, who serves as our narrator/guide throughout the piece.
Various detours occur, though no matter how tangential anything feels at any given moment, rest assured that Phillips has brought us there for a good reason. Milo's capsule, meticulously recreated by Phillips for the show, is constantly being reoriented and repositioned so that our perspective on Milo and his world continually shifts; that's one of the main ideas in Capsule 33, that our lives and our environment are best understood if we keep changing the way we look at them. Milo isn't afraid to reinvent himself entirely when an unexplainable catastrophe renders his home uninhabitable.
Nikola Tesla also figures importantly in Capsule 33. Tesla, inventor of many of the technologies that underlie and/or power much of what we take for granted in our lives in 2010, fought a bitter battle with Thomas Edison about one of them (alternating current), solely because Edison couldn't see how to make money harnessing it. This became a repeated theme in Tesla's life, and it's the heart of Phillips's play: why do we let something as trivial as money keep us from protecting the precious world around us?
This is indisputably a play of ideas, but it's also a thoroughly delightful physical theatre work, full of warmth and laughter—very nearly a clown show, in fact, though a particularly profound one. Phillips never fails to surprise us in his work here.
The show is also, importantly, a very green one. All of the power required to run the show is tapped from generators that the audience is encouraged to pump before the play begins; nothing is hooked into the electrical grid. And everything in the show is crafted from recycled materials. Phillips, performing a play about how to live sustainably, practices what he preaches.
What he's created is a work of genius, an exhilarating, stimulating, and dazzlingly theatrical assertion of hope and humanism in a season of doubt and inertia. It's just the jolt we all need.