Zoo Motel review – check in for a wild night of surprises

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An ordinary hotel room becomes a place of upended perspective and magic in Thaddeus Phillips’ connection-themed play

Magic man ... Thaddeus Phillips in Zoo Motel.
Magic man ... Thaddeus Phillips in Zoo Motel.
Magic man ... Thaddeus Phillips in Zoo Motel.
Mark Fisher

Last modified on Tue 22 Dec 2020 05.39 EST

The adventure is over, the wizard has been exposed and Dorothy is back in her Kansas bedroom. Everyone is pleased she’s woken up. “But it wasn’t a dream,” the girl insists. “It was a place.”

The same could be said of Zoo Motel. The work of theatre-maker Thaddeus Phillips and designer Steven Dufala, this online fantasia seems to be set in an everyday motel room, complete with single bed and en-suite bathroom. Instead, it draws us into a dreamlike world of upended perspectives and visual magic. By the time Phillips plays a clip from The Wizard of Oz , we are losing our grip on the line between reality and fantasy. This room is both a place and a dream.

His theme is about connections. After a year of isolated living, we rarely get more social than gathering for a Zoom call, so Phillips makes a big deal of our live presence, calling for feedback throughout the performance and checking us in by name (this “cinematic theatre play” could have been called Zoom Hotel).

Like Scott Silven, who takes a similar approach in his online magic show The Journey, Phillips gets us to join in card tricks and number games. When he reads our minds, it creates the illusion we are influencing events.

If that makes us feel a little more connected as an audience, Phillips also makes us think about our connectedness to the past, present and future. His visual cabaret initially feels random but gradually reveals its governing spirit. He talks about the golden record journeying into space on the Voyager probes, its soundtrack of speech and music an attempt to communicate with alien life.

He talks, too, about a telephone box in the Mojave desert, where strangers could speak to each other, and another in Japan, designed to talk to the dead. His own telephone call to reception reveals only poor customer service.

All the while, the room around him transforms. A door vanishes, a pop-up book changes picture, a creepy puppet turns its head. The physical laws are unstable here in a show that amuses, beguiles and maybe even connects.

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