Before the house lights dim, ¡El Conquistador! begins with a breezy prologue by the play’s sole live performer, Thaddeus Phillips, who introduces the audience to the quirky world they are about to visit. His story is set in an upscale condo in Bogota, where apartment dwellers are never issued keys to their buildings. Phillips tells us that for security reasons, metropolitan Columbians are usually at the mercy of their doormen who, in ¡El Conquistador! at least, find work to be a constant distraction from their telenovela TV shows.
Telenovelas are similar to American soap operas but with a crucial difference: after about six months, the telenovela's story finally ends! According to Phillips, they are wildly popular not just in South America but worldwide; in Bulgaria, elderly women commonly pay men on the street to orally summarize telenovela episodes that have yet to reach their country.
Prologue dispensed, we join the simple, good-natured Polonio as he makes the move from his impoverished rural farm (where his crops are destroyed by Washington’s coca fumigation program) to the big city. His dream is to become a participant in the telenovelas that have filled his life with so many vicarious adventures.
Arriving with nothing but his beloved house plant and his TV (on a leash), he at once finds work as doorman for a building packed with bickering, demanding tenants. These colorful characters appear via his doorman’s video intercom and are played by some of Latin America’s biggest TV stars (with English surtitles).
Polonio inevitably finds himself entangled in their sordid affairs. He gets stuck holding a mysterious illicit package, witnesses steamy adultery, fights off the advances of a woman old enough to be his mother and becomes an unwitting pawn in the tenants’ petty feuds. The delicious irony of ¡El Conquistador! is that Polonio could not care less about all the melodrama unfolding on his intercom screen: he only wants to catch up on his telenovelas.
As the performer and co-creator of ¡El Conquistador!, Phillips keeps the evening lively with a smart blend of social satire and Chaplinesque physical comedy. The play itself is similar to a Latino Modern Times in its portrayal of a manic laborer overwhelmed by the unending demands of the job. And as if the constant requests barked over the video intercom weren’t enough trouble, poor harried Polonio just cannot get good TV reception. (In a virtuoso scene toward the end, this problem is finally rectified on the building’s stratospheric roof.)
But what really makes ¡El Conquistador! such a delightful romp is Phillips’s perpetually ingenious mise en scène, which affirms the potential of theater by showing what one performer can do with a wild imagination and the most basic props. By rearranging a few simple set pieces (and cleverly “stepping into” pre-recorded video footage), Phillips constantly alters the audience’s point-of-view to conjure up many marvelous little worlds out of a single condo’s lobby.
¡El Conquistador! is running through October 22nd at New York Theatre Workshop.