You do wince when you ask a performer to explain his show’s subtitle and he responds with something about the need for people to become “radiant bodies, which can exist outside of the physical form that we have to learn by being in.” But if you’re talking to Linas Phillips, whose Lasagna or: How I Learned to Stop Slipping Towards the Prison of Permanent Darkness opens this month, you also remember that he made two of the most life-affirming films in recent memory—and they didn’t provide the usual answers, either.
Now living back in New York, where he graduated from NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing, Phillips first gained attention locally with a 2006 Northwest Film Forum documentary as odd as it is uplifting. In Walking to Werner, Phillips detailed his 1,200-mile march from Seattle to Los Angeles to visit filmmaker Werner Herzog—who, shortly into the trek, informed the undeterred fan that he wouldn’t be in LA when Phillips arrived. As Phillips encounters a disparate array of fellow travelers the movie becomes an ode to the sudden cruelties and surprising kindnesses that bind us to one another. He followed that success last year with Great Speeches from a Dying World, wrenching encounters with homeless people in Seattle who stare down the camera and recite famous lines from Lincoln, Shakespeare, even Jesus. Who else (except, perhaps, Herzog) would have the openhearted audacity to capture a bleary crack addict’s stunning rendition of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman”?
So, yes, you listen politely when Phillips explains how Lasagna (the title’s an in-joke between him and On the Boards artistic director Lane Czaplinski) features him and actor friend Jim Fletcher in a dialogue about the search for love inspired by their dreams and conversations as well as the ruminations of alien abduction author Whitley Strieber. Oh—Phillips also plays a comic, mentally challenged character whose head is a projection on a flat-screen TV and whose body is a live woman performing choreographed moves behind the screen. There’s a spiritual method to such madness, although Phillips’s ambitions go beyond organized religion. “In some ways it’s great,” he allows. “It’s like advertising for that area that people should make time for in their lives. Like, Oh, yeah, there’s God.” He acknowledges a near-religious obsession with “the web of life” that drives his art. “I just feel like things are really connected,” he says, “and I’ve had many experiences where something is just kind of—I don’t know, it’s just letting you know it’s there.” He pauses, frustrated. “Damn, I start to clam up when it gets too big or too broad,” he says, then goes at it another way: “I have a real strong faith in God, but I think it’s always good to question things. And that’s what, I guess, we’re all about and what I try to be about as an artist.” Which is why, despite your reservations, you go to On the Boards to see what the hell he’s come up with this time.