Zoo Motel – Theatre Nation

Creator: Thaddeus Phillips

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Two different phone booths, on two different continents, serve different purposes. What they share is the human desire to connect. In the online experience Zoo Motel, there are 21 rooms, and in each of these rooms, a guest is invited to stay and experience an exploration of the psyche, with the illusionary talents of director Thaddeus Phillips.

Before the show has even begun, ripples of an Escape Room ebb across the audience’s minds as a set of instructions arrive at ticket holders’ inboxes – a tantalisingly moreish concept as we unfold our check-in details and see what is offering to be slightly more than expected. An evacuation map, a key-card and Zoo Motel makes a humble request, and it is an important one to get behind the magic of the production, to secure a deck of cards.

Phillips’ production preys upon the preconceptions of storytelling, (mis)communications and illusion. Upon entering the motel, immediately, something seems unnatural with the surroundings. Doors seem to come and go, and the motel seems intent on its guests coming to an internal realisation with themselves, or with the world, before lowering its guard.

Punching a hole into the human necessity for connection and interaction, Phillips untangles the spectacle of cinema with the artistry of theatre to demonstrate the possibilities of the imagination, even when confined to a small office space. Utilising personal experiences, the Voyager’s Golden Record for creative scoring which underpins much of the production, Phillips draws on cultural stories from differing cultural planes to tell a shared story.

With no physical means of escape, Phillips turns to his fellow guests, communicating through whichever means necessary. Gradually, Phillips introduces us to his reasons for travelling, to direct live theatre productions concerning the end of the world and the consequences of neglecting climate change. Steadily, the walls and dressings of his motel room warp and unravel a multitude of layered narratives and themes.

Zoo Motel is sluggish, with pauses in the wrong places driving down interaction and engagement. The pacing can shift gears with a moment’s notice, and when at its peak, towards the latter third of the show, Phillips is capable of holding the audience, but there’s a devoid energy in Phillips’ choice of character. The attempt at mysticism  speaks more of Mystic Meg than genuine otherworldly experience.

In significant chunks, Zoo Motel shifts from theatrical cinema and into performative illusionary work. For some, the card tricks are simplistic, Phillips carrying Steve Cuffio’s magic consultancy well, but a couple play grander roles in both the production’s narrative theme and audience enjoyment. Phillips ties trickery into the story, and though he ambles through the deck’s revelation as the cards themselves share a tale, it makes for a decent watch and but relies heavily on sleight of hand (and camera) manipulation to deceive the audience.

The innovative kingmakers of cinema are present, and their inclusion sits at the heart of what does indeed work about Phillips’ production. Variations of Walt Disney’s rotoscoping, Orson Welles camera advancements sit along with scenic designs and palettes which conjure David Lynch or Terry Gilliam.

But this use of the camera belies something. Magic, unless opulent or devoid of obvious manipulation, manifests a barrier against believability. The transitions can jar as the camera shifts around the room, and though Steven Dufala’s design is meticulous and plays with perception in a scintillating way, a few tricks behind the wizardry are on show. Immersion is at the heart of productions like Zoo Motel, and when it achieves this it strides out at its best, but more often than it drips with little charm.

Available here

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