As a title, SPAM seems like a case of mistaken identity or a lost opportunity, not just because Rafael Spregelburd’s play is about lost identity and mistaken opportunity. Rather, Spregelburd’s prodigious imagination throws so much into SPAM – the James Bond franchise, Inuit culture, the lost language of the Eblaites, the hunting habits of seals, Freud and the psyche, intellectual property, academic integrity, the flaws of Google translator, the flaws of Chinese mass production, Internet fraud, Internet shopping, the life and art of Caravaggio, Greek mythology, the Costa Concordia disaster, organized crime, offshore tax havens, the former Italian PM Mario Monti, the checkered history of Malta, fate, chance and, though it seems impossible, even more – that the play defies being summed up as “unwanted email.”
At least that’s that what I was thinking as I sat down to The Cherry Arts’ production at JACK. Spregelburd is one of Argentina’s leading playwrights, but he borrows the German term sprechoper, or spoken opera, to describe the play, which at least approaches the high notes of its intended drama. Still, spam is the genre we’re given to consider, and it’s true that Spregelburd’s anti-hero, a wily and unscrupulous Neapolitan linguistics professor (also named Mario Monti) gets into some serious trouble when he answers an email from a Malaysian woman in financial distress, and that this indiscretion sets the play in motion. But spam, with its invitations to enhance sexual performance, get rich quick and look beautiful with no effort or pain, speaks to our Id, and that, in a nutshell, is what SPAM does, too.
The plot is not easy to flatten into a straight line; a Borgesian flair for labyrinthian twists and meta-fictional turns is a specialty of Spregelburd’s, as well. SPAM begins with an amnesiac Monti in a hotel room in Malta, trying to piece together his identity and the chain of events bringing him to that unfortunate limbo. Luckily, he has the 21st century’s most content-rich archive of information there is – his laptop – for help. Unluckily for him, he apparently erased it completely before losing his memory. To help him out of that cul-de-sac, Spregelburd uses a stagehand (played with passive-aggressive innocence by Dominic Russo) who feeds the actor playing Monti (Elevator Repair Service’s Vin Knight) a supposedly random series of prompts for reconstructing his past. It might sound convoluted and after a few scenes you’ll probably have rejected the possibility that Knight and Russo aren’t following a script (although they did skip scenes, by mutual consent, the night I attended), but by then we’re enjoying it too much to care. We’re also trying to keep up with Monti’s 007 fantasy as it upends a hilariously broken-talked Google translator, close-up analysis of Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist,” a mockumentary about a foul-mouthed Patti doll released on the Italian toy market by cut-rate Chinese manufacturers, historical background to the Bond film “Dr. No” (filmed in Malta) and the rest of Spregelburd’s seemingly infinite concerns which could mostly be summed up – perhaps in a very awkward Google translation – as “globalization.”
Yet the focus is on Monti, as unsavory as he can be. SPAM’s success lies not only on the adventure it spins but also on a very subtly intimated human story about loss and redemption. Spregelburd’s amnesiac professor is of course the antithesis of the real Mario Monti, the esteemed economist brought in to clean up the fiascos created by the Berlusconi government. The reference fairly drips irony as the fictional Monti is more a goofy Icarus to the real Monti’s Perseus (where the Italian debt crisis is Medusa’s snakes); he vainly acts on whatever impulse crosses his mind or his genitals. Vin Knight’s anti-hero is an impetuous little boy who revels in playing at dangerous games and takes a certain glee in seeing other people suffer at his machinations. But he also wants to just be loved. We’re tempted to indulge him; Knight delivers a mix of eye-rolling exasperation, world-weary cynicism, devil-may-care impulsiveness and a bold-faced confidence in his intelligence that is hard to resist.
SPAM is the first production by The Cherry Arts, a new theater company under the artistic direction of Samuel Buggeln, who both directs and has created the set here. Spregelburd’s wide-ranging story relies heavily on the Internet while also poking fun at its modes of communication, so Buggeln’s solution is a hi/lo mix of technology that happily uses video lectures of Monti pontificating about the Eblaites from the tenured comfort of his university office, but can cast a magic spell with an old-fashioned A/V projector. Monti’s hotel room is approximately drawn, with the show’s numerous exteriors wired in via Google and film and TV archives (and Spregelburd’s original mockumentary of the Patti doll scandal). Although video settings usually look lazy to me, Spregelburd’s running commentary on the codes and forces of globalization depends on this endless stream of images, and in Buggeln’s production it all works seamlessly, with Russo manning sound and light effects from the sidelines with the air of a therapist to the ailing Monti. Why all the interior walls of JACK are wrapped in aluminum foil, however, was a mystery to me. Maybe it’s just Buggeln taking a clue from Monti and following some hidden childhood urge or a metaphor for our wired age.
If there’s a message in SPAM, it’s threefold: don’t read your junk mail, don’t cheat and don’t sit in a cafe with a Dan Brown novel. You’ll have to see the show to understand why, but that’s exactly what you should do: follow the clues and, for once, enjoy being spammed.