See Chicago Dance sees theatre: 'Zoo Motel' a fanciful flight to realms mystical and magical

When you check into Zoo Motel, you’re checking out of the daily horror show that has recently transformed network news and diving into the escapist world of master creator, host and lead actor Thaddeus Phillips. “Zoo Motel”—a live, virtual theater production—is Phillips’ response to the loss of access to live theater due to the Pandemic. “Zoo Motel” premiered in October from initial venues in Los Angeles and Miami, and has been going strong since then, live streaming via Zoom from Bogota, Columbia.

The interactive production comes to Chicago audiences—only 21 motel “guests” per performance—courtesy of local sponsorship by Links Hall (streaming Thursdays through Sundays through Jan. 24). With no small thanks to some pretty highfalutin live video technology, Phillips and his team of creative collaborators—master magician Steve Cuiffo, director Tatiana Mallarino and artist/designer Steven Dufalo—elevate and expand the artistic possibilities of live, virtual theater with a production that is innovative in both concept and execution.

One of the most striking innovations of “Zoo Motel” is its ingenious solution to the whole issue of audience in virtual theater. The sad fact of most virtual performing arts productions is that you, the audience, are the missing essential ingredient that characterizes the alchemy of live performance. With virtual transmission, a sorry but better-than-nothing substitute for live theater, you, the audience, are a passive invisible and anonymous voyeur sitting in the privacy of your own, quarantined home.

What a refreshing and instantaneous difference “Zoo Motel” makes by having its audience “check in,” casting us as “motel guests’’ in the production. We are visually present on the screen as audience, but we are also, simultaneously, active participants in the production. As the “guests,” we assume a theatrical role, enter a stage set and its reality, interact with the dramatic leading man and manipulate props via paper cutouts and a deck of cards sent in a pre-show packet. But at the same time, we also participate as audience in the voluntary suspension of disbelief required of all good theater experiences.

Phillips presents a captivating dramatic presence from his first appearance as our fellow motel guest, opening the door to his motel room, just as we are doing the same with our “keys,” and guest packets. Serving as tour guide, storyteller, actor and character in his own story, Phillips self-narrates in a continuous stream-of-consciousness monologue throughout the experience.

You’re also putting yourself in the able hands of a grown-up (sort of, but not entirely) version of Mr. Rogers, who enters his own motel room in the Zoo Motel much as Mr. Rogers entered the beloved house in his neighborhood on PBS while we, or maybe our children, were growing up. Add into the mix a sprinkle of Marvel Comics, puppetry, science fiction, film noir and magical realism, and you’re on a one-and-a-half hour flight of fantasy that transports your imagination to a catalogue of intriguing possibilities.

Topics fly, from a ringing phone in the Magritte-like painting of the phone booth in the Mojave Desert, to a miniature Titanic sailing the Atlantic Ocean, to driving your car from a paper dashboard to a drive-in movie to see “The Wizard of Oz,” an airplane’s diverted landing in Iceland and magic tricks with a deck of cards. Phillips’ playbook includes the story of his grandfather, a Las Vegas publicist who gets mixed up with the Jewish mob at the Flamingo resort and winds up surviving Bugsy Seigel’s attempt to kill him while Bugsy bites the dust. It all unfolds at a dizzying pace as Phillips and we panic together, trying to discover a way out of a room in which the door has mysteriously vanished, but the peephole is still there.

If there is anything I wanted or found unsettling in “Zoo Motel,” it would be the somewhat occult aspect of through-line in the storytelling, but that’s really a matter of personal druthers. I wanted Phillips to stick with any one of these delicious ideas a little longer—Did you know you can call the dead from the Osuchi Wind Phone where the tsunami hit in Japan? Or the whole marvelous bit about ghost lights in theaters—who, or what is your ghost light? The images of ghost lights glowing on empty stages in dark theaters throughout the world is a haunting lament for the monumental loss of we continue endure from the COVID-19 pandemic. What a metaphor!

For some unknown reason, I expected “Zoo Motel” to be populated by animal puppets. Spoiler alert: it is not. The puppets in residence there are one tick-tock cat who sits, tail wagging, atop a wall-mounted pay phone and a marionette fellow we first discover hanging on the wall by the bed and who, only at the very end, animates into action.

As a dance writer, I am not accustomed to writing about theater, although I have to admit, this was fun! There is no dance per se in “Zoo Motel,” save for an intriguing light dance of airport flares, and of course the delightful dance of Phillips’ imagination, of which we are the recipients.


“Zoo Motel” runs Thursdays through Sundays through Jan. 24 online. Tickets are $21 per household, available by clicking the event page below.