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What do you get when you combine The Chronicles of Narnia, Moby Dick, a pop-up book, and Kabuki theater? That’s what A Billion Nights on Earth sets out to do, and with mostly positive results. The unique experimental production is playing this weekend at BAM Fisher as part of the 2017 Next Wave Festival.
A collaboration between theater director Thaddeus Phillips and visual artist Steven Dufala (one half of the Dufala Brothers), A Billion Nights on Earth first premiered at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival earlier this fall. It tells the story of a father and his young son, played by Michael Fegley and his real-life son, Winslow. It’s late at night, and the boy can’t find his stuffed whale, so he’s having a hard time falling asleep. Meanwhile, his architect father labors away on a drawing — accompanied by a comical smooth jazz score — having to reheat his coffee every time his son interrupts his work. When the boy opens the refrigerator for a glass of milk, he discovers a portal into an alternate universe. He enters, in a search for his white whale, with his father following closely behind.
From there, the story jumps through space and time almost at random, from an arctic landscape to a giant ocean to the dawn of man (complete with 2001: A Space Odyssey reference) to outer space. Like the picture books from which it takes its inspiration, A Billion Nights on Earth doesn’t have much of a plot, perhaps because it never had a real script. As the elder Fegley told the Philadelphia Inquirer in September, they would work through ideas as they came up during rehearsal. “They” being he and his son, together with the director and his family. (The Fegleys and the Phillips have been friends for years, and the program lists Phillips’s wife, actor Tatiana Mallarino, and their four-year-old son, Rafael Phillips, as co-dramaturges.)
The most impressive part of the production — apart from the younger Fegley, who steals the show with his comic timing and dance moves — is Phillips and Dufala’s set and prop design, bringing to life a multitude of parallel worlds. When the play begins, we see the boy’s room through a dormer window. He climbs in and out, peering through a small telescope at the stars. Later, the roof slides back to reveal the interior of the space: the playroom where the boy dances to the radio and implores his stuffed penguin and squirrel to search for the whale, and the bed where he should have already been sleeping. Once through the refrigerator, the world is populated with giant inflatables, Chinese food containers that double as backpacks and makeshift boats, and a flickering campfire that both roasts marshmallows and mixes beats to create music.
Toward the end of the hour-long show, the boy and his father — ever in their pajamas — take the subway to the 81st Street–Museum of Natural History stop, where the boy is convinced he left his stuffed whale. They switch trains, miss trains, get stuck in the doors, and run up and down the stairs at various underground stops, all portrayed merely by the familiar sounds of the subway and conductor instructions, as well as a giant box that the actors run around and through as puppeteers rush to open and close various flaps in turn.
As Phillips explained to the Philadelphia Inquirer, A Billion Nights on Earth is like “an illustrated storybook or a pop-up book where the pages are constantly turning.” And much like any good children’s book, the story itself takes a backseat to the magical worlds sparked by the visuals.
A Billion Nights on Earth continues at BAM Fisher (321 Ashland Place, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through November 18. Tickets are $25.
A Billion Nights on Earth returns to FringeArts (140 North Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia) Friday, December 15 through Sunday, December 17. Tickets are $10–$25.