Letter from Patras

Enter the Apollo Theater on Georgiou I Square in Patras – a work of the German architect Ernst Ziller built with the contributions of the thriving 19th century merchant class – and you enter the gilded, colorful past. Enter the Art Factory, a paper mill outside the city restored for last year’s celebrations of an unfortunate European Capital of Europe 2006, and you are surrounded by the future. Both venues now comprise part of the Regional Municipal Theater of Patras, which recently came under the directorship of Lydia Koniordou, one of the prominent modern tragediennes. It is a good omen that some of our regional, albeit financially hard-pressed, theaters are in good hands. Take the Regional Municipal Theater of the Northern Aegean, for example, which was founded in 1993 and is led by Dimos Avdeliodis (born in 1952), better known for his prize-winning films «The Spring Gathering» (1999) and «The Tree That We Have Wounded» (1988). One month ago, Patras and the island of Chios went into partnership to produce «Alexander the Great and the Accursed Dragon.» Avdeliodis directed and Patras paid for part of the production costs. Drawing on influences from the Greek-Turkish tradition of shadow theater (despite the Turkish origin of Karagoz, Karaghiozis is an integral part of the Greek folk tradition) most characters of the Karaghiozis repertory were present in Avdeliodis’s «Alexander the Great and the Accursed Dragon.» First of all Hadziavatis (his Turkish counterpart is Hacivat), Karaghiozis’s friend and sidekick, an honest and serious figure who often ends up becoming embroiled in Karaghiozis’s schemes. As his servile tendency to flatter the powerful is more than obvious, the result is that his name is associated in Greece with the «eternally compliant person toward the occupying and dominant establishment.» As a rule, most politicians of any ruling party belong to his sort. Then there is Barba Giorgos («Uncle George») representing the blue-eyed shepherd from the mountains – not in the Lutheran sense though. There is the Albanian guard of the Palace named Veligekas, and Fatme, the Pasha’s beautiful daughter. Crowning the action, one sees Alexander the Great in full armor, his sister the mermaid and finally the mean accursed dragon. Most certainly, the solid character of Alexander the Great is in the Karaghiozis repertory as the personification of bravery. He is a genuine St George as in the story with the dragon and the maiden in the Orthodox Church, or brave Lancelot in Yevgeny Schwarz’s Russian anti-Stalinist play «The Dragon.» As for the mermaid, Greek legend says that she appears to sailors asking if her brother is still alive. The unsuspecting sailor who ventures to answer negatively is dragged down to the dark and watery depths. For the only right answer is the following: «He lives and reigns and is conquering the world!» Even though there is a rather strained and chauvinistic assumption in the printed program that traces the origin of the Karaghiozis shadow theater to Homer’s «Iliad» with the «unsightly Thersites» as well as Old Attic comedy, on the grounds of similarities that cannot be validated historically, the performance itself ran more than satisfactorily. (The theater scholar Cedric Whitman writes that the similarities between Karaghiozis and the Aristophanic comedies are due to a revival rather than to the survival of a certain kind of comic spirit that can also be discerned in the plays of Gouzelis, Rousmelis and Vyzantios). The action on the stage of the Art Factory in Patras twisted and twirled among frogs, chickens and roosters. The play has some of the texture of «Alice in Wonderland,» where animals talk and two-dimensional humans behave outrageously. Lost allegory Often there is blunt political allegory lost in the tricksters’ behavior. Not very much in this case. Television seems to be doing a better job in this respect. It is said that Karaghiozis was Hellenized in Patras in the late 19th century by Dimitrios Sardounis, alias Mimaros. He is considered the founder of modern Greek shadow theater. He was the one who began an important transformation by introducing new themes and Greek stock characters. Patras was never a tourist town as such, and that is always gratifying. However, as the city with the most popular street carnivals in Greece, Patras does get some sort of cultural kick at least once a year. A still better one might come with Koniordou’s staging of Samuel Beckett’s «Endgame» next month. It is tempting to think of «Greek theater» as merely synonymous with «Athens theater.» Yet with events like the exceptional productions taking place in Chios, Patras, Hania and Thessaloniki, these coastal communities have also been put on the map as quality artistic happenings. After three decades during which Greek regional subsidized theater had remained moribund, there is now a deathbed revival, a real theatrical awakening.