may 2017 | Volume 155
Silvia Gallerano. Photo credit: Valeria Tomasulo.
La Merda—Italian for The Shit—is an hour-long one-woman play performed naked by Italian actress Sylvia Gallerano. At The Cultch as part of a tour that has gotten raves for her and the show around the world, Gallerano delivers an incredibly powerful performance about her character’s obsessions: her body image, her desperate ambition and desire for fame, her one-sided negotiations with male power, and her own abjection.
La Merda is also somehow about Italy itself (playwright Cristian Ceresoli is likewise Italian) in ways that aren’t entirely clear to this non-Italian. Much of Gallerano’s monologue, delivered as a quick-paced stream of consciousness into a hand mic that sometimes distorts the sound, was also incomprehensible to me due to her thick Italian accent. Nevertheless, I found the show and performance fascinating.
Gallerano is already sitting, nude, on the bare platform that is the only set piece as the audience enters, and she never moves other than to adjust her position slightly, and at the end of each of the three sections of the piece, in a crescendo of screams, throw her arms in the air. She doesn’t try to conceal her nakedness in any way, and after a few minutes I barely noticed it. What is its purpose? What does it mean? It might be a visual equivalent of her monologue, stripping herself bare. It also foregrounds the commodification of her sexualized female body and the disjunction between her character’s sad little self-image and the actress’ reality.
The nameless character insists that she is “a small one” and that she has monstrous thighs, neither of which applies to Gallerano. She’s an aspiring actress who lives at home with her mother and has great anxiety about auditioning. She doesn’t appear ever to have gotten a part, but she fantasizes about becoming famous, “making it big” and being recognized in the street: basically, getting attention. (Maybe that’s why she’s sitting there naked.)
A lot of her stories involve getting attention from men: the blow jobs she gives her boyfriend, the handicapped boy she jerked off when she was 13, the producers she imagines wanting to fuck her at auditions, and her daddy. Especially her daddy, her role-model, who is dead (by suicide, maybe; a suicide she herself considers). He looms very large in her mind. He taught her things—about sex, men, the Italian revolution. He took her to an aquarium, an image that recurs throughout the monologue. I thought for sure she’d let slip that he abused her, that their relationship was incestuous. But no, that’s never made literal or explicit in the text.
The show climaxes with the actress preparing for a TV audition for which she has to gain weight and sing the Italian national anthem. Each of the previous two sections has ended with her surreally, hysterically imagining herself solving her problems by eating: eating her thighs, eating the cocks of the men “who control the television, the nation, the family.” Her eating at the end … well, let’s just say the title comes into play.
Gallerano’s performance is extraordinary: her quavering “normal” voice modulating into hysterical laughter, triumphant shouts and screams, her quick vocal hits of the secondary characters who people her monologue each vivid and distinctive. I’m tempted to say the nudity is brave, but it doesn’t really feel that way. Nor does it feel like a gimmick exactly. There’s a lot more to this show than the naked female body, though now having seen it, I can’t imagine it being performed clothed.
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