Review by Thomas Gregory
If you dart down a dark alley in St Kilda, knock on a black metal door, and go up a steep flight of stairs, you might find yourself in for a good time.
Or you might end up seeing Spot, the latest play by Fabio Motta.
A part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Spot is described as containing “satire, physical comedy and unforgettable characters”. If you take a loose enough definition of satire and are willing to admit that comedy is subjective, this is correct. The one-person play, however, could be better described as “a pseudo-autographical, heavy-handed rant about perceived racism by a bitter character that is almost as poorly written as this description.”
Fabio Motta is an experienced physical performer and, when given a good script like What Rhymes with Orange, is quite the talented dramatist. He has played Benedick for Melbourne Shakespeare Company and has even tread the boards at the Sydney Opera House. If nothing else matters more to you than seeing a professional clown give an energetic performance in a homemade dog costume, this might actually be the show for you. Motta never does anything without 100% conviction and while his voice work on characters sometimes falters, every slurped penis, grabbed testicle and suckled teat is mimed with full confidence that the juvenile in the audience will love it. Some such moves are even given sound effects.
As a writer, however, Motta’s show does nothing to credit his acting.
Let’s be clear: we need more works that challenge Australia’s attitudes towards racism. We are lucky enough to have some incredible playwrights and performers who do just that every year, including many great works as part of MICF. We could always do with more.
The last thing you want to do, however, is to give an audience reasons to tune out.
The play opens with Mario, an eight-year-old boy who has just moved to Australia from Italy. When asked what he likes to do, he says “play”. He says it with such enthusiasm that we all understand. The make-believe adventure we all enjoy in childhood, which some of us get to continue as adults, is intoxicating. Of course Mario wants to play and we empathise completely.
It is the first day of class and his teacher (who, for some inexplicable reason, grabs his own bottom a lot) is handing out books to students. Mario is sadly left with two options. No explanation is given for why the class is so poorly resourced, but such is the case. The options are “Spot” and “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”. Mario picks up the bulkier of the two and says “Shakespeare” in his broken English.
It is, in a word, adorable.
After learning that Shakespeare wrote “plays” he is adamant he wants the book but the teacher says no. Shakespeare is far too complex, and perhaps the spot book would be better.
According to Fabio Motta, this is racism. Not a teacher choosing the book closest to a child’s vocabulary, but racism.
Motta goes on to show other examples of racism in poor Mario’s childhood. Another Italian boy thinks Mario will know how to play soccer. A girl thinks he is cute and compares him to Enrique Iglesias. A third child asks if he wants to play AFL.
This is racism. Apparently.
The play continues in this vein for another sixty minutes. Mario doesn’t get into NIDA (I’m sorry, “RIDA”). Racism. Someone else gets a part he thinks he deserves. Racism.
Don’t worry, Motta found a way to deal with pesky reviewers like me. He explicitly includes a scene in which he creates a mock audience member who asks “Well, couldn’t that just mean he wasn’t good enough to get into the most prestigious acting school in the country?” By mocking it, does Motta think he makes the argument invalid?
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, the defendant will say he is innocent. Therefore he MUST be guilty!”
Sorry, Motta, Australia is racist as fuck but this isn’t how to make a point.
Of course, to make it all worse (and I see this too often in theatre), the quest for justice on behalf of one minority has come at the expense of others. There are three female characters in this play. One is a girl who exists only to point out a boy is cute. Two are doting mothers who are ridiculed for caring so much for their children. Every male character other than Mario must, for some unknown reason, grab his balls at least once during the play, and be extremely interested in their hypermasculinity.
To top it all off, Motta is in a fat suit.
Yep, it’s not enough to be in a dog costume, the dog has to be fat. Why? For no narrative reason. There are a few practical “jokes” about it being so bulky, but that’s all.
Racism is terrible. So are sexism and body-shaming. There’s no reason you need to keep two in order to talk about the third.
There is a single redeeming moment that is worth mentioning. In the middle of this terribly-constructed narrative, filled with problematic “jokes” against other minorities, Motta breaks into a song entitled, “Tell it how it is”. I can only hope that one day this song is recorded separately from the play, and perhaps given an extra verse or two. It is surprisingly well-written and sung. While it doesn’t have great depth, it quite clearly points out how complacency is one of the biggest hurdles to addressing our country’s race problem, and that we need to be more active in our response.
If Motta wasn’t so successful, it would be easy to mistake “Spot” for the story of a bitterly failed artist who wants to blame all his problems on racism. The craziness of it all is how unlikely this story is. With an unemployment rate of 25% in the nineties, Mario’s father walking into ANY job is a miracle. If a NIDA auditioner wanted you to re-perform your monologue differently, they must have been extremely interested in you. The play does actually present true-to-life examples of racism, with glanced comments about the popularity of the series “Underbelly” and playing a role “like Joe Pesci”, but they are either shrugged off or exaggerated to the point of fantasy (“now play it like spaghetti!”).
I’ve discussed this recently in another review; theatre professionals do not have to be brilliant at everything. If you are a talented writer, thrive as a writer. If you are a brilliant physical performer, be the best goddamn clown in the world. If you want to produce a great show, work with those who can shine a light on your strengths, rather than get dragged down by your own weakness.
Skip “Spot”. Go see Madeleine Stewart again instead.