January 19, 2018
Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Spregelburd’s magic is a Spam worth saving

Rafael Spregelburd in a scene from his tour de force in Spam.
Rafael Spregelburd in a scene from his tour de force in Spam.
Rafael Spregelburd in a scene from his tour de force in Spam.
By Victoria Eandi
Herald staff

This delirious and stimulating play showcases the power of theatre in small formats

In The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Jorge Luis Borges describes a Chinese encyclopaedia where the animals are divided in categories such as “(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) etcetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.” According to Borges “it is clear that there is no classification of the Universe not being arbitrary and full of conjectures. The reason for this is very simple: we do not know what thing the universe is.”

This approach seems to be similar to the one chosen by Rafael Spregelburd for his latest production, Spam, and deepened by our contemporary chaotic, globalized and cybernetic reality. Anyone who is familiar with the career of this brilliant actor, playwright and director — one of the most outstanding local theatre-makers, an artist who gives Argentine theatre a major global presence — is used to the fact that he stages enormous plays, which deal with so many issues that any review always runs out of space to explore them all. And one of the most remarkable assets of Spregelburd’s style is his ability to achieve fantastic hybrids, blending in marvellous ways the most remote topics and registers.

In Spam, a Neapolitan professor and linguist has a strange accident and suffers from memory loss. Little by little, he will recall what happened to him over the last month of his life through different clues, mainly thanks to the Internet (including a Skype session), but the causes and effects are all mixed up.

As far as we know, Mario Monti — that is the name of this professor, just like the former Italian prime minister — has refused to correct the thesis of a student, Cassandra (a name related to apocalyptic visions, also present in Spam). While he is expecting to receive a reply from her, he gets hooked on a spam e-mail (presumably from Malaysia and with the typical fraudulent aspect) which draws him into an incredible adventure worthy of inclusion in the James Bond saga, involving cursed dolls who speak dirty words and outrageous PayPal purchases.

Spregelburd embodies Mario Monti, whereas Zypce, the musician of the piece, complements him by allusively performing several characters mentioned by Monti while he tells his story (they are the only two performers onstage). The story does not begin the first day of the month but randomly, on any date, and then proceeds by skipping to another date that is never consecutive, until completing the 31 days. That is how the order of the events is sort of unpredictable and the plotline goes capriciously backwards or forwards.

Spregelburd is a splendid performer in this multimedia “spoken opera” (a genre he has already worked with before in Apátrida), a singular kind of storytelling theatre, with music design by Zypce, so particular that the sound itself — produced live onstage with the most creative and non-conventional instruments — also works as a relevant character in the piece.

Spam lasts more than two hours but Monti’s unusual monologue captures the viewers, who end up on the edge of their seats, reconstructing the timeline of the events, as well as absorbing the multiplied and dense information Spregelburd includes in this play, which is as heterogeneous as the Internet browser windows about dissimilar topics we are used to opening at the same time.

The story unfurls in 2012, so the apocalyptic atmosphere related to Mayan predictions haunts the series of strange events that take place mainly in Malta, giving it a sombre and sad atmosphere, only counteracted by its humour. This island is introduced in Spam as a place where Swiss producers usually shoot under-the-sea documentaries, and where Caravaggio took refuge from justice and painted, among other works, his Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, a strong image screened — among many others — during the piece in its original form, but also recreated in a Chinese supermarket.

Pollution is one of the great topics of Spam, from a virtual point of view — the very title of the play points to it — through hilarious allusions to junk mail such as penis enlargement or translators delivering ridiculous versions of any text; and from the ecological point of view — plastic accumulated on a floating island in the North Pacific is mentioned during the play.

Another topic is language and linguistics, the academic field of the main character of Spam. Monti’s whole story is cut across with a detailed and funny description —including screening of didactic images — of the extinct Eblaite language, a dialect of an Ancient Mesopotamian group. The whole reference to this language has an apocryphal air, as well as many other allusions to real events and actual history during the play. This mixture between true and false information makes Spam an even more attractive piece.

Like the rest of Spregelburd’s production, Spam’s narrative is really complex. It has a sort of rhizomatic structure, where any point may be connected to any other point, bringing together very different regimes of signs, situations and vicissitudes.

Not only does Spregelburd’s character establish bizarre links due to his memory loss, but the viewer is also invited to oscillate between the strange and complicated conventions of a lost language; karaoke scenes; the crises of banks in Europe with the consequent presumed sinking of some of its countries; news reports covering the shipwreck of Costa Concordia (as a metaphor of the area’s economic collapse); and an intricate thriller that becomes an anguishing exploration of loneliness.

All of them are chaotic, but at the same time reasonably associated. The tiniest detail can let loose a whole flashback or flashforward which may provide the most unpredictable explanations, sometimes following the concept of “butterfly effect.” And that is how the story branches out in many others, suggesting the same infiniteness of the World Wide Web.

Spam is one of those improbable, delirious and stimulating plays Spregelburd usually stages locally and abroad, especially Europe, where his productions are much more requested and subsidized by theatre institutions than in Argentina.

It is a very cinematographic piece, mainly due to the complex treatment of time, but it also demonstrates the enormous power of theatre to tell incalculable stories in intimate formats — only one actor is necessary — and generate multiplicity of thoughts with fewer technical resources than cinema.

When everything seems to be already said and done in local theatre, Spregelburd always springs into the scene to challenge, provoke and amuse the viewer’s mind once more.

When and where

Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 9 pm at El Extranjero (Valentín Gómez 3378).


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