Letter from Hania

It’s fascinating to note how deeply the psyche of some Cretans is rooted in the legends of the past. Giorgos Kontarakis, an architect in Hania with whom I graduated from the Technische Univaersitaet in Berlin (West Berlin at that time, some time ago now), believes firmly in old gods. He is also convinced that he is the reincarnation of some royalty from the Neolithic period (7000-3000 BC). To prove this he wrote a book about it. Though he acted weirdly sometimes, when we were young in Germany, nearly everyone who knew Kontarakis liked him a lot. He knew nearly everyone worth knowing in Siegmundshof, where we were both staying. Last Saturday we sat down in his old house, facing the old harbor of Hania («In all probability, this building has been standing here for at least the last 6,000 years!» he claimed) sipping tsikoudia and discussing things. The imposing portal is reminiscent of the baroque architecture of the ancient Venetian capital of the island until the Turk conquest. Giorgos explained to me for hours how the soul of Crete is harbored on Mount Psiloritis, and what a bad person Cronus – who devoured his children at birth – was, and how a former colleague of his, an architect named Daedalus, had contrived the Labyrinth for the Minotaur and how he later showed Ariadne how Theseus could escape from it. You can meet some interesting people in Hania, which is the modern name of ancient Cydonia. Although Iraklion is the bigger and economically most prosperous city in Crete, Hania is the uncontested spiritual and cultural capital of the island. It is also the home of CYDONIA, one of Crete’s best dramatic companies – and a non-profit organization which receives scant support from the Culture Ministry and therefore basically sustains itself. The theater, which also hosts a drama school, is housed in a crimson mansion of the 1930s. The stage inside feels more like a living room than a playhouse. «The actors I coach have no previous theater training,» explains Michalis Virdidakis, director of the «Mnimi» (Memory) group. «Our goal is to fulfill our artists’ needs, and if the community wants to look over its shoulder, fine.» He does not favor concessions. With a fruitful theater career to his credit, as a director and prize-winning playwright in Athens, Virdidakis, a buoyant middle-aged Cretan, arrived in Hania some years ago to create his theater group. Despite its almost five-year existence, the company has staged only a handful of plays for the public, in mostly excellent productions. It has staged predominantly European and American lesser-known classics, along with very active workshop and reading programs. Their latest production, «The Eve of Retirement» by Thomas Bernhard, focuses on historical events and figures which provoke some familiar questions. The plot of the play: The three aged Hoeller brothers and sisters Hoeller, living together for better or for worse, celebrate each year, on October 7, the birthday of the realm leader, Heinrich Himmler. Judge Rudolf Hoeller was once a deputy KZ commander. Autobiographical? Could be. In the end, it doesn’t much matter. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways. Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), arguably Austria’s greatest post-World II writer, challenged Austrian complacency in dealing with its Nazi past and cruelty. Thirty years on, with a current dirty war going on, Bernard’s political views are still fresh, and the play itself as fascinating as ever. There is extended discussion on «terrorist bombings» which took place in the mid-’40s. Here the characters (Panayiotis Chrysanthopoulos, Despina Pollanagnostaki and Katerina Dolianiti) are played engagingly enough to interest the audience. There is some crackle to their words – some sense of the stormy weather underlying them. Crete, where there once lived a certain dreadful monster called a Minotaur, has also known traumas produced by World War II – of a completely different kind from the Germans or the Austrians. At that time, late in 1940, Crete was used as a British military and naval base. The British and Greek forces on the Greek mainland evacuated to Crete in 1941, but they were quickly overwhelmed by the Germans in a large-scale airborne invasion, the first of its kind. Late in 1944, British ships isolated the German occupation troops, who eventually surrendered. Now, one can read all about it in Evelyn Waugh’s «Sword of Honor Trilogy.» Consequently, the audience here feels the play in a different way than they would, say, in Athens. «There’s always a real sense of participation, of living within the play for the audience,» says the director Michalis Virvidakis. That’s right. In Hania you find yourself getting caught up more with that kind of action. «Most people who have been here seem to enjoy it,» he continues. For most small theaters, life is a feast-or-famine situation. Great word-of-mouth on a show will pay the rent for several months. The theater was half full the night I saw the play. Sure enough, the goal is not to grow rich on avant-garde theater.

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