‘Do You Wish to Amaze Your Wife This Night?’
Where to start! I suppose with my personal introduction to this piece, when I met director Samuel Buggeln and translator Jean Graham-Jones at the Fence international translation conference in January 2015. It was there I heard about how this project began, in late night conversations at the hallowed O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut and on subway platforms in Brooklyn. As part of that same conference I visited JACK Theater for the first time, presented to conference-goers as an ally of contemporary works in translation, and first admired its tinfoiled walls.
This past Thursday night it all came full circle, when I saw SPAM in all its glory as the NY premiere production of Buggeln’s Cherry Arts. According to Buggeln’s program note, “The text of SPAM looks like 31 poems, and reads like an insane and irresistible provocation.” Paying homage to the structural capers of his Argentinian forefathers, Spregelburd’s 31 day story does not require a linear telling, and Buggeln and the actors rose to the challenge by introducing an element of chance into this production. Each “poem” was represented by a number on a hanging calendar (later jumbled into a top hat), and the numbers were drawn at random to determine the order of the story. Vin Knight, playing protagonist Mario Monti, at times chose to “pass” on a certain day, and appeared to make other impromptu staging choices over the course of the show, maintaining the visceral thrill of a work of live theater. (Of course, perhaps the joke was on us and the order was actually predetermined, adding another layer to the storytelling, but I prefer to believe it wasn’t.)
Like an evening at Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, the audience had a peek behind the curtain at the mechanical workings of this complicated storytelling, not only thanks to the surprise order of the scenes, but also because “The Operator,” Dominic Russo, was on stage and an essential character in his own right: part assistant, part scene partner, part peanut gallery. His responsibilities included tracing the number of the day/scene in a pile of sand on top of an overhead projector, and manipulating a webcam to live-stream the action on stage — redirecting and doubling the audience’s focus, and cuing the talking dolls’ strange interjections. His presence facilitated a wonderfully weird interweaving of technology with the noir thrill of crime novel storytelling, reminding us how much of our own story is out of our control.
Thanks to this fragmented narrative, the audience shares the amnesiac protagonist’s hazy understanding of his identity, and has the satisfaction of completing a jigsaw puzzle as the scenes jump backward and forward through time. In this way, form imitated content to support such rich lines as, “The present is a ritual repetition of something else, a celebration of events that have already occurred in the past,” and, “Time in reality doesn’t exist. It’s sheer hunger management.” While Knight is forced to continually re-situate his awareness of himself with the arrival of each new scene, the audience accumulates pieces of the story to finally discover a whole narrative at the end.
The title, SPAM, is a reference to the massive number of spam messages in Monti’s inbox, and introduces such bizarre, hilarious, ominous refrains as “Enlarge your penis” into the story. The spam serves as both the catalyst for the story and Monti’s inevitable downfall, and Spregelburd/Graham-Jones do a tremendous job of representing the layers of linguistic confusion that live on the internet through these spam emails. (I once wrote a poem, reproduced below, using my favorite spam emails of the hundreds found in an inbox for a temp job I was working.)
Two scenes involve hysterical renditions of “live” Google translation, which give heightened significance to Monti’s line as a linguistics professor, “Strictly speaking all surrounding languages are invading languages.” As we well know, the double-edged sword of the world wide web brings us closer together while simultaneously driving us farther apart. The influence of foreign cultural exposure can lead to the loss of native culture. To that end, I laughed particularly hard at Monti’s line, “Her name’s full of typos.” How are we expected to achieve a higher level of connectivity if we can’t even express our own names?
Spregelburd’s dissatisfaction with the world is not confined to the perils of the internet. He also unabashedly takes on consumerism and even language itself.There are a couple sly references to Hamlet’s “words, words, words” soliloquy (perhaps improvised by Knight). Moreover, Monti’s depression becomes all consuming over the course of the month — without his memory, his money is worthless, his life is worthless, he can’t even find a record of himself in the virtual world because he has the same name as the Italian Prime Minister. Through highly professorial linguistic analyses, Monti finds a focus on the space in between, which provides a note of humanity and reassurance in an otherwise bleakly spiraling story. What are the unnameable, the untranslatable parts of human existence? What are the most important parts of our own stories? With the way the world is going, where will it all end?
Find out for yourself: SPAM runs through April 30 at JACK in Brooklyn.
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(or, My Inherited Inbox)
Translated spam gives itself doubly away, like kebabs masquerading as hot-dogs,
vegemite in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the gig is up
before the first bite.
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Pronounce and denounce like children, squinting eyes at the accent,
laugh at lazy tongues and loose idioms, losing words in both languages till
new parts of the old brain ache, dull meat probed by brilliance.
hello my friend, yes, it’s me
Spiderweb strands stretch to strangle the desperate,
strangers with wide eyes, who aren’t afraid to look long and deep,
then keep right on walking, leaving nothing but a filmy hole of recognition.
I remember you asked me how I lost weight so quickly?
Tamp down, blot out, box up, and pack in the gregarious. Draw the mask
of haughty calm, slip back into well-worn shoes with worn-out soles,
walk until you remember the word for hips to tell how they ache.
nobody wants to reveal the secret of how to lose weight quickly, but I know.
Body shame, who’s to blame, skinny bitches sucking down Nutella blobs.
Compressing and compacting to fit into old stone spaces, develop a taste
for minimalism. Refinery requires reduction.
“Do you wish to amaze your wife this night?”
Sex isn’t supposed to be lost in translation, the language
of bodies seamlessly coupling, parts upon parts,
she climbs the curtains while you pull a rabbit out of your hat.
This Mama has pleasures that are not wrong. Do you want to find out?
Comic dowdy glasses and jiggling asses, it’s true
they make spam sushi in Hawaii, brittle rice-paper
wrapped around hunks of all-American meat.
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Probing essential insecurities, not enough, too much,
everything is always everywhere the same,
it’s an after war world, after all, buzzing with drones, where
everything is very simple and free.