Three rubber masks, two industrial-sized bags of corn chips, a working grill and seven hamburger patties, a birthday cake, one pair of Nikes, a hammer and nails, a bunch of flowers and two live rabbits: This is the raw material of Rodrigo Garcia’s horrendous, joyful and vitally theatrical meditation on aspiration and disappointment in today’s consumer society. These, and two seemingly average-looking actors whose jaw-dropping commitment to self-exposure (of every definition) is a crucial part of what makes this piece as uplifting as it is corrosive. An Argentine now living in Madrid, Garcia is very much the darling of European theater — three of his pieces were presented at last year’s Avignon Festival alone — and this well-received presentation at Montreal’s biennial Festival de Theatre des Ameriques marks his North American debut. Given that his work is, at its core, a pointed critique of American-led globalization, one wonders what kind of welcome he would receive in the U.S.
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The show takes place in a large, basically empty space with a few pieces of furniture dotted around it, and the action begins with a faux-ceremonial procession: Patricia Lamas enters holding a book, reading the myth of Phaeton aloud into a hand-held microphone, accompanied by Juan Loriente, whose hand-held flashlight initially provides the only lighting onstage. This story — of the arrogant son of Helios who was struck down by Zeus when he drove his father’s chariot too close to the earth — provides the metaphorical backdrop for the evening’s activities, as does the literal presentation of light piercing through darkness.
Lamas’ reading is interrupted by Loriente, who launches into a funny, animated rant about race-car driving (the show is performed in Spanish and here supertitled in both French and English). What they’re doing doesn’t look like traditional acting, per se: They call each other by their real names, talk directly to the audience and engage in actual embodied activity on stage. At first they come across like bored kids boasting and fooling around to kill time, but the actions quickly become more extreme. They take off their clothes and put them back on; they dance wildly (backed by a deafening club-music soundtrack) and fall to the ground. She traces a pattern around his body with mounds of taco chips; at one point it looks like he is about to urinate into her mouth.
In between, they deliver dialogues and monologues — philosophical, nearly poetic reflections on fame and failure, such as a surprisingly touching passage on the pros and cons of being the fallen soccer star Diego Maradona. It is only in some of these slightly overwritten and repetitive spoken passages that the energy sags in the two-hour-plus, intermissionless event.
The show feels random and unstructured, with little apparent connection between the different pieces of action. On reflection, though, there is a clear arc traced from the performers’ childishly outrageous initial behavior to a final act of resignation, as they don fast-food employee uniforms and she teaches him how to cook burgers. The exuberant armchair philosopher is transformed before our eyes into the purveyor of cheap consumer goods.
If this sounds didactic, it’s not: The performers’ charm and openness draws the audience in, so much so that four brave Montrealers were more than willing to come on stage and help Loriente demonstrate his philosophy of meaning-making by removing their underwear and stuffing it in their mouths (yes, really). This and other moments are redolent of the participatory energy of ’70s happenings, and the breaking down and reassembling of theatrical form make it clear that Garcia knows his Baudriallard from his Derrida from his Robert Wilson.
But the overall vibe of this show is bravely contemporary and progressive; its very liveness offers a model of embodied protest. Garcia is the real deal, a theatrical innovator with a message for today.