Thanks to a partnership with the newly-founded company Theatre Nation, Thaddeus Philips’s live, cinematic Zoo Motel is able to be broadcast to the UK and EU via Zoom. Though it premiered on the 10th December, it has already generated excitement and praise from the well-regarded critic Lyn Gardner as a “homespun makeshift peephole into the marvels of theatre”. Indeed, the show astonishes through aesthetic trickery and resourceful prowess, however, it lacks in terms of narrative engagement and captivating performance. As a result, it is wholly enjoyable and entertaining, but it still – visuals excluded – makes one pine for the live experience.
The production is displayed to a small audience. Each member is assigned a room at the motel and, before the play begins, receives an email attachment including a room key, brochure, evacuation map (with no fathomable exit – not that it matters) and an outline of a car which viewers must cut out (though making a crude finger-frame where required will do). This is concluded with the instruction that participants must find playing cards.
Once the night clerk has invited spectators in, Philips checks in to his own room too. Upon entry, he calls room service as – after a brief inspection – he discovers his door has disappeared. However, there is a peephole and, of course, the audience who can choose to interact with his demands, or quietly observe, as the show progresses. Though its premise is innovative, its development is narratively fractured. The plot tries to link disparate tales of Abe Schiller’s involvement in the Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel (told through a mesmerising card trick), the Titanic, the final moments of The Wizard of Oz, Voyager’s Golden Record, the Mojave phone booth and the Otuschi “wind phone”.
It sounds ambitious just to hear it and, indeed, it is too enthusiastic for one actor to craft into a cohesive production. It is only on thorough reflection of the performance that the apparent message of the piece comes through clearly: the connection that theatre attempts to create can still be forged even if we are – courtesy of Covid-19 restrictions and like Philips at the start – trapped. However, even if the show is unable to lucidly convey this theme through its narrative, the beautiful design of Steven Dufala and the captivating, magical direction of Steve Cuiffo can, nonetheless, dazzle observers through the livestream as if they were at the theatre.
Zoo Motel is online from 10th December until 31st January 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.