Let’s talk about the hair first. It’s not as if you can ignore it. Katerina Vrana’s free-spirited follicular abundance is the first thing you notice about this Greek-British comedian.
“Hair like an exploding volcano,” marveled one reviewer. “Imagine a willow tree that’s come to life and gone instantly mental,” rhapsodized another comic contemporary.
A Greek woman with a crazy, big head of hair? Sounds suspiciously like a cultural stereotype, doesn’t it? But nailing cultural truisms is Vrana’s bread and butter. Her wildly successful one-woman show “Feta with the Queen” is essentially a one-hour compare-and-contrast exploration of her experiences as a Greek woman residing in the bosom of UK society.
Much-lampooned traits such as the British fondness for a cuppa, queuing and the art of the passive-aggressive complaint are pitted against opposite-end-of-the-spectrum Hellenic customs: heroic hospitality, machismo, financial generosity – to potent comic effect.
Since it debuted in 2013, “Feta” has sold out in venues across London and Athens, at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia, and at the influential Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals – to predominantly rave reviews. Of course, mining cultural stereotypes for laughs can be a risky game. There are many who consider it to be the runt of the comedy litter. But in the hands of the skilled and charismatic Vrana, who was born and raised in Greece before moving to the UK to study, it’s a gamble that continues to pay off handsomely.
Through her energetic, precise and affectionate delivery, Vrana manages to breathe fresh life into well-traveled observations in a way that leaves neither culture feeling bruised. The Athens comedy scene also owes much to Vrana – one of only about three or four professional female comedians presently working in Greece, she estimates. She brought the first open-mike nights (“Five Minutes of Glory”) to this country in 2012, in the teeth of the crisis, along with her Greek comedy peer Lambros Fisfis.
“I realized that there was nowhere for Greek comedians to try out new material or for new comedians to go,” says Vrana in the extremely cultivated English accent that mystifies both herself and her family. (“I’m Greek, Greek, Greek – I don’t know where the accent came from!”)
“People kept telling us that no one was laughing very much or going out very much, but in fact the timing was perfect. Greeks wanted to go out and enjoy themselves again without spending a lot of money. And bars and clubs wanted to put on entertainment that didn’t cost a lot.”
But Vrana says she has never “gone for laughs” about the crisis – even back in 2012 when the theme was inescapable. “I discovered that people don’t want to hear political satire anymore. You can’t even make fun of it because it makes fun of itself. And so many Greeks are still in such difficult situations. I’m excited about what’s happening in stand-up comedy in Greece. But I’m pessimistic about recovery. And I’m very pessimistic about the political situation.”
Vrana, who will shortly perform at the six-day Art Links – Athens 2014 festival, sports an impressive pedigree in improvisation and sketch comedy, mostly in the UK, and currently runs two weekly comedy events in central London (Rudy’s Comedy Night and Angel Comedy). She divides her time between Britain and Athens, honing her delivery in her native Greek tongue.
“The first time I performed in Greek to a Greek audience, I have never been so sh**-scared in all my life,” confesses Vrana, who will perform “Feta with the Queen” at Art Links on two separate nights (first in English and three nights later in Greek). “I’d lived in the UK for years, I had no idea how to perform in Greek. It was like doing stand-up with my hands tied behind my back. But the audience were very kind and they carried me.”
Vrana’s Art Links appearance later this month kicks off a prolific period. She will roll straight into another round of weekly “Feta” performances in Athens at Theatro 104 in Gazi, and is now also busy writing her next solo show. “It will have nothing to do with cultural stereotypes this time. It has to do with sex!” she says enticingly.
But back to that hair.
Vrana believes that her traffic-stopping mane symbolizes in a nutshell the biggest difference between Greek and British audiences. “I do have about 10 minutes’ worth of material on my hair,” admits Vrana. “Self-deprecation forms a massive part of British humor. But self-deprecation just does not exist here in Greece. When I joke about my hair here, ladies in Greece say: ‘But agapi mou, it’s thavma [miraculous]! Be proud!’
“British audiences are more familiar with stand-up. They know what it is and you can play around with them a bit more. It’s in their blood.”
Breaking in stand-up comedy in Greece, by contrast, remains more of a challenge, observes Vrana. “If you watch Greek television, the humor is very shouty with big faces, almost clowning,” she says. “Greek TV has definitely stagnated. But in everyday Greek life, there is so much humor. If you look at Greek Twitter, it’s hilarious. It’s cutting. There’s humor and irony and sarcasm. It’s really very good.”
Vrana’s own comic inspirations are wide-ranging and encompass the late Joan Rivers, Eddie Izzard, Eddie Murphy, Maria Bamford and Wanda Sykes. But her one true comedy flame, she professes, will always be the Muppets.
“I just love everything about ‘The Muppet Show.’ The two old guys. The comings and goings on stage. The Swedish chef. Everything. I could go on and on. Whenever I do one of those quizzes about ‘Which Muppet are you?’ it always gives me Animal,” says Vrana in mock dismay. “I’m like, ‘C’mon… I want to be Miss Piggy!’’’
And yet, that hair…
To reserve tickets to Katerina Vrana’s performance on Saturday, October 18 (English) or Tuesday, October 21 (Greek) and to find out more about the Art Links schedule, visit the website: www.exploringacreativelife.com/art-links---athens-2014.html
* Amanda Dardanis is a freelance journalist based in Athens.