Not a many-splendored thing

According to the organizers, half the city was turned away at the door of the Argo Theater on Monday night. Anybody who wishes to see Dimitris Katalifos perform in Samuel Beckett’s «First Love» probably has a better chance of doing so if they nip up to Thessaloniki next week, where there are still some tickets left for the May 5, 6 and 7 shows. The irresistible combination of an obscure prose monologue by Beckett superbly acted by Katalifos was the brainchild of director Panos Papadopoulos and Kozani’s Municipal Theater. Last year, the theater inaugurated its new Contemporary Stage in an old warehouse with the performance «Ionescu Live.» It continues to pay tribute to the so-called «theater of the absurd» – where ordinary words and ordinary people behave oddly – with this spring’s production of a Beckett work unknown to most. The short story «First Love» was written in 1946 in French, and only published in English (translated by the author) in 1973. Although Beckett had not begun writing plays at the time, the rambling first-person narration and sidesplitting black humor are typical of the Nobel laureate (best known for his dark masterpiece «Waiting for Godot») who refused to travel to Stockholm to pick up the prize in 1969. Perhaps he did not want to err like his protagonist in «First Love,» who tells the audience, «The mistake one makes is to speak to people.» Clutching a black garbage bag and clad in a dirty white trench coat and black fedora, Katalifos wandered around the theater’s foyer with a half-wit’s gleeful smile plastered across his cherubic face. The audience followed him into the theater, furnished with all matter of junk, where he proceeded to haphazardly pick up empty coffee cups and chat in a high-pitched, jarring voice about his first love. Always smiling angelically, he tells us how he prefers to take his lunch in the graveyard where his father is buried, saying that «the smell of corpses, distinctly perceptible under those of grass and humus mingled, I do not find unpleasant, a trifle on the sweet side perhaps, a trifle heady, but how infinitely preferable to what the living emit.» He stumbles upon Lulu – who he later decides to call Anna – on a park bench after his father’s death and his eviction from his house. He is at once repulsed and attracted by her fat thighs. But he does not know whether he is in love, because he has never felt this dreadful feeling before. He realizes, to his horror, that he must be in love when he finds himself carving her name in cow dung with his finger – and then sucking on it. Lulu (given a guttural baritone by Katalifos) herds him to her house and takes her clothes off. He confides to us that this is women’s wont when they have nothing left to do. In a frenzy, he proceeds to empty her living room of every piece of furniture but a couch. As recounted by Katalifos, their first night of «love» – «I looked at my member. If only it could have spoken!» – in which he held on to the chamber pot all night, had the audience in hysterics. It is his particular charm as an actor to be at once so truthful to this misanthropic nihilist and yet come across as so likable. «The living wash in vain, in vain perfume themselves. They stink,» he says at the beginning. But now, years later with only his garbage bag to cling to, he is wistful about his first love. He abandoned her while she was giving birth, skipping to the sound of her screams. But he will never forget her. «There it is,» he sighs, not quite regretting his own humanity. «You either love or you don’t.» «First Love» is playing at the Argo Theater (15 Elefsinion, Metaxourgeio, 210.520.1684) today at 9 p.m. and tomorrow at 7 p.m. It moves to Thessaloniki’s Amalia Theater (71 Amalias & Paraskevopoulou, tel 2310.821.483) on May 5, 6 and 7.

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