I hadn’t been to a live performance in a theater in over a year. Since I am totally vaxed and masked and meet the guidelines set by The Marsh, I decided to attend Marga Gomez’s Spanking Machine last night. Everyone obeyed the safety protocols throughout the performance.
Gomez is the perfect act to open at the Marsh to a live audience in over 18 months.
I’ve been following Ms. Gomez’ performances for decades. I believe I saw one of her earliest performances at Theater Rhinoceros. Even then, I thought she was unique and very funny. Also poignant and very physical in portraying various characters. Last time I saw her was at the Central Works theater in Berkeley. She was acting in King of Cuba by Cristina García, a full-length play in which she appeared as Fidel Castro. Since I hadn’t seen her in years, I wondered if I would recognize her. However, as soon as she came on stage in typical Castro military garb, I knew it was her. She has said that Spanking Machine would be her last solo performance. She wants to write for other actors. Hopefully she will appear in other people’s plays. Whatever she does, I’m sure she’ll be a huge success.
In Spanking Machine, Gomez as Gomez talks about friendship with Scotty the boy in the third grade of her Catholic school who became her best friend and the first boy she ever kissed which made them realize that they were both gay even at that young age. She knew it, but he didn’t- then. She relates their friendship as being very sweet, poignant and devilish in that they were bent on pranking big people. Spitting on them. Shooting them with water guns in subways, and doing other mean things children cook up to harass adults. They, of course, as kids, think they’re hysterically funny. However, if you misbehaved in class, you were threatened to be sent to the principal’s office to face the spanking machine. The children didn’t exactly know what this machine did but all feared it. Anyone who came back from suffering its effects did not want to talk about it for fear they would be sent back to face it again. It was a threat that hung over them all through their school years. Upstage on the set is a cardboard box with a black block letters on it that read: Spanking Machine. We think that we are going to actually see this device. But, of course, we don’t; however not seeing it, we can only imagine it as the traumatized children can.
She and Scotty lost contact with each other for 40 years until one day, she gets an email from him. Gomez, as Scotty, types out his email, verbalizing the text in the raspy asthmatic Cuban-accented voice she gives him.
Gomez creates her characters not so much physically- well, that too- but relies more on voice. He tells her he lives in Miami and invites her down for a visit. She somehow gets the impression that he’s very wealthy. Turns out differently as we find out during her stay in Miami. He now lives with his wife and mother-in-law- a Cuban thing- who do not appear in the piece. However, Margo gives us glimpses of their characters through her vocal delivery. To indicate different situations and physical locations, she announces a costume change and will change to a tropical blouse for her Miami visit, a bomber jacket when she becomes truly comfortable as- what she comes to realize- a dyke.
Gomez doesn’t shy away from speaking about the sexual abuse that she suffered not only from men but from women as well. She gives anecdotes about responding to an interesting man’s invitation and visits him in his apartment to see his collection of tropical fish only to hear him lock all the doors in his apartment. After managing to escape, she came away with a water-filled plastic bag of guppies when she was promised exotic tropical fish- one of the reason she agreed to visit him. One of her male abusers has an extensive ceramic collection which in a wonderful depiction she doesn’t hesitate to destroy in order to get him to release her. At one point she relates graphically how she was sexually abused. Thankfully, the necessary revelations about other bad stuff- sadistic treatment of brown kids by Irish nuns: Sister Kevin McGillicuddy (?) for one, for instance, are scattered among humorous anecdotes. Her only props are a table, a tall stool,a chair and a shopping bag containing a few items. Through her verbal delivery alone she allows us to magically see the scene.
Spanking Machine does not run smoothly. It has stops and starts. It as though she takes time to gather herself to talk about the trauma she has undergone throughout her life as a gay, dark-skinned Cuban, Catholic girl growing up in New York, whose only friend in the third grade was Scotty the first boy she ever kissed.
Marga Gomez’s one woman show Spanking Machine, is at The Marsh in San Francisco on Valencia Street between 21st and 22nd through October 23. Tickets and information can be found at the Marsh web site: TheMarsh.org