At the end of The Wizard of Oz, a breathless Dorothy lies in bed back in Kansas, trying to decode her fantastical experience. “It wasn’t a dream; it was a place,” she exclaims to her doubtful family – a place where nasty neighbours become wicked witches, surrealist visuals are aplenty, and the metaphysical idea of ‘home’ is all-powerful; a place where fantasy and reality blur together.
The creators of Zoo Motel likely wanted to evoke a similar sensation. In fact, the production not only routinely references the 1939 film, but even presents its unnamed character as a Dorothy-like figure. He wants to go home, but he’s trapped in a mysterious liminal space – not Oz, but a motel room without a door. As he searches the strange area, he passes the time by waxing poetic on what it means to be alone… and by performing some magic tricks. No, really.
Directed by Tatiana Mallarino and starring Thaddeus Philips, Zoo Motel feels a bit like an esoteric fever dream, as it oscillates between being an art-house fantasia and an interactive magic show. Themes of connection and isolation are routinely alluded to, as if production is flirting with the idea of making a timely or meaningful point… before it immediately segues into another disappointing card trick. For all the references to a telephone box in the Mojave desert where strangers could speak to each other, or one in Japan designed to talk to the dead, Philips leaves these ideas hanging in the air while he whips out yet another underwhelming arithmetic ‘illusion’.
Which is a shame because there’s a lot to initially like about the production. Performed over Zoom, the show is limited to an audience of 21 each night, and every ‘visitor’ is assigned their own room within the motel. In this regard, the line of demarcation between audience and performer is further blurred; like Philips, we’re invited to experience the weird fusion of reality and fantasy. In a year where cabin fever has become the new norm, a show that explores what it truly means to feel isolated and disconnected from real life could be stellar, but this isn’t that show…or, at least, half of it isn’t.
I suppose, at its core, Zoo Motel has a crisis of identity. At times, it wants to evoke a Charlie Kaufman-esque rhapsody, with a kaleidoscope of intense visuals and disarming perspectives (no matter what else, designer Steven Dufala makes the show look good). But then, equally, it tries to earn gasps with C-tier card tricks and giggles with D-tier puns (Zoo Motel – ZOOM Motel?? Because we’re on Zoom?? Get it??). After 90 minutes of tonal flipflopping and thematic obfuscation, you find yourself thinking “well, at least Dorothy had Glinda the Good Witch to help everything make sense… what do we have?”
‘Rooms’ are available at the Zoo Motel until 30th Jan – for more information, please go to Zoo Motel’s website.
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