ArtsEmerson Unveils Mysteries of Thadeus Phillips’ Zoo Motel Online


On the outskirts of ÅŒtsuchi, Japan, there is a wind phone built by gardener Itaru Sasaki where users can have one-way conversations with the dead. Sasaki created it in 2010 after losing his cousin in a devastating tsunami. The Wind Telephone is an unconnected rotary telephone housed in a white British-style telephone booth that has become a place of solace for complainants.

If you could use the wind phone, creator and performer Thaddeus Phillips asks, who would you call?

This story is one of many that Phillips tells in “Zoo Motel,” a live virtual theater offering that runs through Nov. 21 via ArtsEmerson. The oddly peculiar production, directed by Tatiana Mallarino, appears to nod to the days of isolation at the height of the pandemic, when thoughts of reconnecting were like a distant dream. The hour-and-fifteen-minute show presented in a small, confined space is billed as the oldest live online theater show in the world. Over time the order of the show and the writing have changed, Phillips shares the post-show. This is the last series of performances.

Before the show, the “Zoo Motel” team, which includes the night clerk and technician (Newton Buchanan) from Philadelphia, sends their guests room keys, an evacuation map / map, brochure and instructions. branded stationery by email. I have the keys to room 10. One thing members of the audience should also have on hand is a deck of cards. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any playing cards, but I decided to look for a digital game online and I was successful.

Phillips, creator of “17 Border Crossings,” focused on his true border travel adventures, and “Red-eye to Havre de Grace” on the last days of Edgar Allan Poe, ”is a natural storyteller. He aims to create visually inventive theater that embraces a variety of themes. This is true of “Zoo Motel”.

Phillips shows up in Room 18 – with its red walls, 3D phone booth art, and other tchotchkes – tired of traveling. During his stay, he allows the public to learn a little more about his life and the world in general through stories about his family, magic tricks and visuals.

There’s a red book he’s got titled “Theater Projects 2020” that he’s leafing through, and the pages have giant red x’s on it. Phillips ponders upcoming plans in the tiny hotel room as he reflects on his travel plans, which have been thwarted by the pandemic.

Phillips performs successful magic tricks with the cards and chooses a number but doesn’t tell me what it is. Meanwhile, spectators participate and shout where they’re coming from. There’s Ellen and Richard from Boston and one person in Melrose’s room 23. Phillips also looks at a few tales from the “Zoo Motel” attraction list, from the wind phone to the Titanic and the Starlite Drive-In sign. The Starlite Drive-In Theater operated for almost half a century before it closed in Montana. During the pandemic, the weathered sign was restored and the theater resuscitated. Another tale mentions the Golden Disc – aboard NASA’s “The Voyager” – a sort of 1977 time capsule containing the sounds and images of life on earth. There is a connecting line in all of the stories, but the most poignant one centers on Abe Schiller, Phillips’ grandfather who lived and worked in Las Vegas.

There is also a bit of silence, not real silence, but long moments without dialogue where the audience watches voyeuristic Phillips perform tasks in the play. He notices that his door is gone, he flies on a plane, puppets appear and there is a mini costume change. Visually, a visit to the “Starlite Drive-In” is the coolest. The public can watch in a small drive-in diorama with cars in the parking lot, lights and a working screen showing an old classic.

During the map segment, Phillips asks everyone to choose a “Ghostlight” card and that it “must represent someone in your life living or deceased.” I choose the queen of hearts for my maternal grandmother. The same person I would call on the wind phone. At one point, he asks the guests to draw a certain number of cards. I draw the indicated number of cards from the digital deck, and the first was the queen of hearts. It was strange. Somehow, even though I didn’t have all the right tools, I still ended up in one place with the other tenants.

Thaddeus Phillips performs card tricks on “Zoo Motel”, a digital show via ArtsEmerson. (Courtesy of Rafael Esteban Phillips Mannarino)

Once he’s finished, Phillips speaks to the guests and answers questions. It also encourages feedback through the online guestbook where people around the world leave notes, drawings, cutouts, and other thoughts about the experience.

The storytelling visual journey in “Zoo Motel” is the sort of thing many might have longed for as we shelter, unsure of what the future holds. Now that the vaccine is rolling out and the world is opening up again, getting people to watch theater online in the hopes of forging connections might be a little more difficult. Do we still need this?

As Phillips shares more about the inner workings of the room, I flip through the guestbook and see a picture of the key to room 10 next to a queen of hearts on the “Zoo Motel” stationery. I suddenly feel connected to the mysterious Zoomer who chose the same card as me, however several moons ago.

Maybe there is still a need for online connections after all.


ArtsEmerson’s “Zoo Motel” is on view until November 21.


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