RIAF: The Pianist; 17 Border Crossings

Works by Thomas Monckton and Thaddeus Phillips.

By Kay Kipling October 17, 2016

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Thomas Monckton clowning around with the keyboards. Photo by Heli Sorjonen


The promise behind this year’s RIAF to bring fun to the festival was certainly delivered upon with several of the season’s offerings, perhaps none more so than with The Pianist, an hour-long one-man comedy special starring New Zealand-born Thomas Monckton.

Monckton conceived and produced the show with the collaboration of Finland’s Circo Aereo, and is lent great support by his stage management and technical director. But he is the only figure on stage, and a perfect comic figure he is: a musician clad in formal wear, bearing sheet music and with an air of seeming nonchalance, no matter what disasters befall him on the way to the keyboards.

You think for quite a while he will never make it there, as he tangles first with a curtain that refuses to allow him to enter, and, as the show’s situations pile on, with a defective piano leg, a stool far too high to sit upon, a glass of liquid that incites him to barf, a chandelier with a dangling ball that hits him at just about forehead level, and a piano that itself refuses to let him open the lid. But no matter, the silent pianist is determined to carry on, demonstrating a high level of both mime and gymnastics skills and eventually interacting with his audience (to their delight) as the evening erupts into a fight of hurled, bundled up sheet music.

It’s a delight to watch, and every time you think maybe you’ve seen it all Monckton comes up with a twist you would not have imagined. No wonder he received an enthusiastic standing ovation.

There is humor to be found as well in 17 Border Crossings, created and performed by Thaddeus Phillips, although it’s not always of such a high-spirited variety, and is mingled with more serious political issues and themes. Phillips begins this one-man show with a brief history of the passport before embarking on the first of his crossings, which take him on various journeys by plane, train, bus, ferry and even tunnel from country to country over the past 20 years or so.

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Thaddeus Phillips in a scene from 17 Border Crossings.


He does so convincingly, portraying other characters as well as himself, including a Serbian smuggler, a Newark Airport immigrations official whose advice on staying out of trouble is “not to travel,” a Mexican named Pablo who keeps coming up with ingenious ways to try to enter the United States, and even an Amazonian shaman who takes him on a trip of the mind through drinking a psychedelic potion. Many of Phillips’ observations are amusing, but they also touch on questions about what boundaries really mean in a world where countries and national identities are constantly shifting.

The issues seem even more absurd when viewed from above, as when “flying” with the aid of that drink. The mountains of Austria and Germany look just alike, after all, and nothing prevents a walker from casually crossing into Jordan from Israel. Croatia may or may not be part of Yugoslavia, depending on the year, and why should a trip to Havana, Cuba, be any more forbidden than one elsewhere? Why should a wall or a bridge separate two peoples who once were countrymen but now are enemies? The folly of all that seems transparent.

So this year’s RIAF is over, but you can look forward to The Ringling’s New Stages: New Sincerity programs, beginning in February. For more on that, head to


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