2015 Philadelphia Fringe Festival: ‘Alias Ellis Mackenzie’ at Lucidity Suitcase International

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Alias Ellis Mackenzie tells the story of Barry Seal, who smuggled drugs into the United States for the Medellin Cartel during the 1980s while simultaneously working as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Seal was a complex character, and Alias Ellis Mackenzie – named after Seal’s actual undercover alias – is a complex show. But maybe it’s too complex. It starts out with a lot of verve, telling Seal’s story in a clever, witty way with some dazzling visuals. Eventually, though, the show runs out of wit and energy, wasting time with dull, confusing scenes, and not providing enough insight into its central character.

Thaddeus Phillips as Barry Seal in 'Alias Ellis Mackenzie.' Photo by Johanna Austin www.AustinArt.org.
Thaddeus Phillips as Barry Seal in ‘Alias Ellis Mackenzie.’ Photo by Johanna Austin. www.AustinArt.org.

Thaddeus Phillips, who portrayed Seal in a Colombian-filmed MundoFox TV series, plays Seal again here (he also directed this show and co-wrote it with the members of his theatre company, Lucidity Suitcase International). In Alias Ellis Mackenzie, we follow Phillips-as-Seal as he films a Colombian TV series about Seal. Whenever a scene ends, stagehands strike the set and move a new set in while the camera crew sets up a new scene. (The “crew” speaks in Spanish, while the “actors” mostly speak English.) Meanwhile, scene directions from the script are projected on large screens on both sides of the stage (“Ext. Louisiana Bayou, Three Years Earlier”). English translations of the Spanish dialogue appear there too.

Alias Ellis Mackenzie dramatizes many of Seal’s exploits, including his dealings with dangerous drug lords and dangerously inept DEA officials. Along the way we get depictions of some infamous figures who crossed paths with Seal, including Manuel Noriega, Pablo Escobar, and Oliver North. There are also jabs at then-Governor Bill Clinton and then-Vice President George Bush; at one point the show mentions (and fails to challenge) a rather dubious claim Seal made about Bush’s sons, one that pushes the show into wobbly conspiracy theory territory.

Jeff Becker’s sets are marvelously intricate, using up almost every cubic inch of the Prince Theater’s space. At one point a Navajo Piper aircraft is suggested by airplane wings and propellers suspended high above the stage. Later, pieces of a vintage Cadillac are brought onto the stage and virtually assembled before our eyes. The technical staff has done some terrific work here.

The cast approaches the early scenes playfully; at one point an actor speaking into a telephone stops a scene because, as he complains to the crew, “no one’s reading lines with me.” These early scenes are brief, giving sparse, simple details of Seal’s adventures. (Yes, some of the dialogue is in Spanish, but since Seal only speaks English, there’s always a translator nearby to explain to him what’s going on.)

Unfortunately, about halfway through the show, the scenes get longer, the film-within-a-play intrusions get fewer, the translations become rarer, and the story becomes harder to follow. One scene with a drug dealer standing on an airport runway telling his life story was so meandering that it virtually brought the play to a halt.

What damages the play the most is its depiction of Seal. Phillips’ performance is inert: he spends the entire play wearing dark glasses and a passive expression, and his voice rarely rises above a monotone. He never brings Seal to life. And there’s no insight into what made Seal tick. Why did he take such enormous risks? Was he just trying to make a quick buck, or was he thumbing his nose at American society? I wish the authors of Alias Ellis Mackenzie had told us. The show looks great, and Phillips and his crew have made a lot of bold staging decisions, but there’s not much to the show behind all its flash.

In the closing moments of Alias Ellis Mackenzie, Barry Seal stands alone on the stage and listens to the audio track of a 1986 NBC Nightly News report of his own death. Sadly, the NBC reporter, Brian Ross, tells Seal’s story more fluidly, efficiently and coherently in two minutes than Alias Ellis Mackenzie does in an hour and forty-five minutes of stage time.

Running time: One hour and forty-five minutes (no intermission).

Thaddeus Phillips as Barry Seal in 'Alias Ellis Mackenzie.' Photo by Johanna Austin. www.AustinArt.org.
Thaddeus Phillips as Barry Seal in ‘Alias Ellis Mackenzie.’ Photo by Johanna Austin. www.AustinArt.org.

Alias Ellis Mackenzie, part of the 2015 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, plays through September 19, 2015 at Lucidity Suitcase International, performing at the Prince Theater – 1412 Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 592-9560, or purchase them online.

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