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Review of Alexis, a Greek tragedy

9 Jan

Alexis, A Greek Tragedy, a new production by the Italian group MOTUS presented in Under The Radar Festival,is in many ways a theatrical essay on the character of Antigone and its projection into contemporary questions of social dissent. Its premise is simple: who is Antigone today? As we are told in the play the group Motus conducted workshops exploring that question when they heard of the shooting of 15 year old Alexis Grigoropoulos by the police and the subsequent widespread rioting in the centre of Athens in 2008. The group set on a trip to Greece in search of Antigone and collecting information on the events. This quest fed into their workshop process and the result was the creation of Alexis: a documentary theater piece including footage of the riots and the neighborhood of Exarchia (where the shooting happened) interviews with residents and intellectuals of the area, personal thoughts of the group’s journey, rehearsals of scenes from the tragedy interspersed with comments in the artistic process itself, explorations on how facts from the actual events can influence the performance of Antigone. According to its creators, Alexis is a call to action. Oddly, the performance (created in 2010) feels already outdated and surpassed by the reality outside the theater hall: the massive worldwide protest movement makes Alexis seem like a thing of the past (slightly reminiscent of those 1970s experiments at getting the bourgeois audiences out of their comfy seats, only the bourgeoisie has now become the 99%) where action is talked about as a concept while theatrical action itself is absent.

Tragic action-social action

Antigone is focused around the burial of Polynices’ corpse. The statesman Creon has prohibited the burial on the grounds that Polynices is an enemy of the state and Antigone defies his decree and buries her brother on the grounds of familial and religious duty. The dead body and the act of burial trigger a conflict between different sets of responsibilities (to the family and to the state) that a citizen carries in a democracy. In the course of the play the two poles of the conflict (Antigone, Creon) become increasingly fixated in their viewpoints bringing about equally personal and civic catastrophe. In between those two extremes there is a physically present chorus of elderly who maintains allegiance to Creon while trying to inspire some moderation in him, as well as an invisible implied chorus, the body of citizens, who, we are told, support Antigone in her action but are too afraid to speak up.

One would expect that a contemporary attempt to grapple with the figure of Antigone – given especially her popularity in explorations of civic disobedience- would thoroughly dig into the dynamics of the conflict between her and Creon, the significance of the tragic elements (i.e. tragic action, chorus) and the play’s structure (how the characters shift in the course of the play) beyond the easy and overused binary symbolism Antigone=resistance/ Creon=tyranny. It becomes therefore shockingly surprising to see how little thought and exploration of the actual tragedy has gone into Alexis: beyond the premise “who is Antigone today” and few text excerpts, there’s really not any committed engagement with the tragedy itself,its ideas, questions, characters or dramatic structure. As a result, the investigation of who Antigone might be today becomes very problematic insofar as the play limits its interpretation of the tragic character of Antigone to a generic and generalized symbol of resistance stripped of any context. Questions of allegiance and responsibility to civic and private obligations, as well as the character traits that make the tragic heroes hold on to their beliefs beyond self-doubt, give way in Alexis to a romanticized/idealized depiction of dissent, seen as a virtue in and of itself, and an a priori demonization of the state as a mechanism of oppression. What in the tragedy is structural (the state becomes increasingly repressive) in Alexis is essentialized (the state is by definition repressive). In the Greek context where Motus’ production is set, both notions of repression and dissent are a lot more complicated as the former is usually accompanied by extreme lawlessness while the latter, when it is not pure state-sponsored violence, is often lacking in ideological foundation.

With the same ease that the play appropriates Antigone as an unproblematic symbol of resistance, it uses the dead body of Alexis Grigoropoulos as a “stand-in” for the dead body of Polynices. A parallel is drawn between Creon’s proclamation that the warrior’s body is to be left unburied “a feast to the wild birds” and the Greek police’s reaction of shooting and then abandoning the boy’s body in Exarchia square. Here the performance misses a very crucial point: Polynices’ dead body is heavy with meaning: he is a disenfranchised heir to the throne, who came back to claim his rights and now he is proclaimed an enemy of the city; he is a brother, a citizen and a leader and the sum of these conflictual roles and responsibilities render his burial a crucial political issue (in Greek tragedy the personal and the political are always conflated). By contrast, what was tragic about the shooting of Alexis Grigoropoulos was the complete lack of meaning. The shooting was pure accident – the term accident here used in fully existential terms to denote a life being lost at the flip of a coin: the boy, a middle class teenager from the suburbs of Athens who was in that evening hanging out with his friends in Exarchia square, provoked the police, an exchange of insults ensued, the police car followed the kids who threw some empty cans at them, the policeman came out, fired and shot the kid dead. It is precisely the complete accidentality of the event (so reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault shooting at the Arab in The Stranger), the ultimate absence of any serious reason, motivation, meaning, politics or ideology behind this clash between citizen and authority, that caused an unprecedented rioting in the city: it was as if the shooting signaled the eruption of bottled feelings of lawlessness, lack of governance, meaninglessness experienced among Greeks for years, generalized feelings that actions don’t matter and don’t make a difference because no one is ever held accountable even if a life gets lost so absurdly in the middle of the street. The riots that erupted were riots of despair, anger and not protests of change, destructive and hopeless. This in fact was more of an anti-tragedy, closer to the world of Camus’ where meaning is lost, than to the world of tragedy’s multiple negotiations of meanings and significations that are equally valid for their defenders and are worth dying for.

This is why Motus’ exploration of who Antigone is does not go too far (despite rather shallow attempts such as “Antigone is the protesters” or “Antigone is the Exarchia square that still resists”): in forcing their own rather narrow meaning and oversimplified binaries (protesters vs.state) onto reality the performance misses the far more rich and productive complexity of the actual social conflict. A good look into the reality (not only of Greece but anywhere in the world where indignation boils) will reveal the diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints, interests and motivations of protesting, the messy, unclassifiable and conflictual collective as all collectives are in such moments of profound social change. Such a look might have engaged the group into a deeper exploration into finding what are the intricate relations between leader and led that tragedy may be able to illuminate in the dialectic relationship between heroes and hero and chorus. Not doing so and imposing premeditated meanings on such a crucial historical moment instead, is, as one reviewer rightly notes,an indication of irresponsibility. While Alexis raises interesting and provocative questions, it seems that the performance as a whole misses the opportunity, artistic and intellectual, to go deeper into the intersections between tragedy and life.


Book overview: Barcelona plays

1 Dec

The Barcelona Plays- a collection of new works by Catalan playwrights, published by the Martin E. Segal Theater Center in 2008 is only one of the many interesting volumes that the Segal has published to complement its really diverse and crosscultural work in promoting international theater and bridging research and practice. This particular collection includes plays by Josep M. Benet I Jornet, Sergi Belbel, Lluisa Cunille and Pau Miro all set against the Catalan capital, whose life and identity runs through the collected works as a common underlying theme.
Unlike your average tourist’s perception of Barcelona, the city here is a stifling, dark, rainy environment of cruel, disfunctional and often abusive relationships between families and lovers. From this somber background, emerge the portraits of young whores and lonely dying citizens [It’s raining in Barcelona and Barcelona, Map of shadows], failed parents and awe-inspiring foreigners [Strangers]; young artists in search of identity [Salamander]. While thematically the plays vary a lot, there seems to be a common theatrical language: the brutal confrontational relationships and the quick and abrupt speech [you will find very few lengthy monologues in the plays] are undercut by a poetic sensibility that gives the plays their particular theatricality: the characters who grow and who confront one another across time and space in Belbel’s Strangers; Lali’s collection of poems on candy-wraps in Miro’s It’s raining in Barcelona; or the apartment with the many rooms and as many lonely inhabitants in Cunille’s Barcelona, Map of Shadows. In all of those settings, people seem to be put together and must live together: rarely in all of the plays do we know how, why and when all the people came to live together under one roof. Thus the focus is placed on characters who are engaged in a battle of dealing with their bond to others – primarily family and lovers, of trying to identify in relation to these others. In that sense in particular that the plays differ drastically from, say, a Chekhovian or a North American dramaturgy: the question is not about individual fates and dreams crashed or shaped by one’s choices, surroundings and the others. Rather what is at question is a bond, the umbilical cord, that one cannot live with and cannot live without, and the constant struggle to live with and break free from the ones one is most tied to as their fates, choices and even identities are intertwined.
What is particularly interesting in this theme that runs throughout the plays in the collection and in the poetic-realistic style by which it is expressed, is whether it may open the discussion to explore the presence not only of a Catalan but of a Southern European- Mediterranean dramaturgy.

Playwright profiles: Eyad Houssami

19 Oct

BTSblog presents you the playwrights of the first Between the Seas staged readings event.

Eyad Houssami grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia and pursued his Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Studies at Yale University, where he directed seven full scale productions. He has also performed in the dead Byzantine cities in Syria, a beach party twenty minutes north of the Lebanon-Israel border, and a 13th century mansion in Damascus. As a writer, he has contributed to peer-reviewed academic journals, international magazines, and regional dailies. A recipient of Rotary and Fulbright research grants, he earns a living as an editor in Beirut, Lebanon.

What inspired the writing of Mama Butterfly?

During the summer 2006 war in Lebanon, I was evacuated from Beirut by American marines on a ship flanked by Navy warships. Around 1,200 civilian deaths were reported in Lebanon; 44 civilian deaths were reported in Israel. My great-aunt, a widow, chose to stay in Beirut despite having the means to evacuate unlike most. Her decision, my privileged evacuation, and the devastation of war prompted me to write Mama Butterfly, my first play. It is based on a series of interviews conducted in 2007.

How did you get into playwriting and what is the type of theater you are interested in?

I first began writing for the stage while studying performance with Deb Margolin at Yale. I am interested in stories and dreams that unfold in the theatre, the place where, despite a future of screens and speeds so great, we will continue to remember, experience, and preserve our humanity.

What does the Mediterranean mean to you?

Millennia of trade, migration, and empire.

Eyad’s play MAMA BUTTERFLY will be featured in the Between the Seas staged readings, on Tuesday October 19th, 7-8 pm at Solas Bar [232 East 9th str.]

Playwright profiles: Anthoula Katsimatides

19 Oct

BTSblog presents you the playwrights of the first Between the Seas staged readings event.

Writing ‘Ham-n-Eggs & Purple Golashes’ (HEPG)

I am a Greek-American, born and raised in the ghetto of Astoria, Queens in NY. I mean no disrespect when I say ghetto. Astoria was a ghetto when I was growing up because my family lived among and
socialized with Greek people. My parents were immigrants who struggled their whole lives to raise their children in a foreign country while maintaining their ethnicity, culture and religion. They succeeded but unfortunately it did result in a bit of an identity crisis for me, their only daughter of four children. My piece was born out of this inner conflict between my Mediterranean and NY identities when I hit my thirties. I felt and continue to feel as though I spread the vibrancy of the Mediterranean culture by just being me. It can be liberating to embody this special, gorgeous “Greekness” but sometimes it is the very thing that I rail against because I feel like it has kept me captive instead.
Growing up sheltered in Astoria by the Greek mantra “what will people say” truly imprisoned me in one world…in one self….and I did not know it on the surface but deep down I kept trying to escape….trying to find myself and only when I was confronted with two personal tragedies did I start to really open up and broaden my horizons and widen my world….and get stronger….and more independent. Although the conflict still looms within.

How did you get into playwriting and what is the type of theater you are interested in?

It was quite liberating when I finally decided to become an actor three years ago at 35 years old after following a pattern of what I “should” be vs pursuing my passion. I found myself sharing my story with others and thought to create a solo performance piece that talked about growing up imprisoned in my culture and not even knowing it. At the same time, I wanted to talk about how grateful I am for that upbringing. HEPG is a wonderful compilation of short stories weaved together with love, humor, conflict, tragedy and brutal honesty. Technically, I don’t think of myself as a playwright (although perhaps now I am). I feel more like a storyteller. This is the first time I have written anything down and I am thrilled to be sharing my work for the first time in the “Between The Seas” festival.

I love theatre that is humble and relatable to the masses. This is what I hope to emulate.
The general messages of my piece that I want to communicate are that of conflict, hope, living freely and the importance of laughing out loud. I want to share my life with the audience and take them on my journey (my journey to Ithaca) which is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge, but also full of heartache….in the hopes of having even one person in the audience relate and walk away not feeling alone in the world.

What does the Mediterranean mean to you?

The Mediterranean to me is all about one island in Greece called Nisyros. The very small, simple, charming place of my parents’ birth. Currently still untainted by strong tourism, Nisyros is a volcanic island with a special heartbeat of its own. Each time I visit, and as soon as I catch my first glimpse of the island from the boat I am traveling on, I can feel my heart begin to synchronize with the pulse of the sea and ultimately with the island itself. Its a magical place.

Anthoula’s play HAM-N-EGGS AND PURPLE GOLASHES will be featured in the Between the Seas staged readings, on TUESDAY October 19th, 6-7 pm at Solas Bar [232 East 9th str.]

Playwright profiles: Damon Chua

16 Oct

BTSblog presents you the playwrights of the first Between the Seas staged readings event.

Damon received an Ovation Award (Best World Premiere Play) for his full-length work FILM CHINOIS, a noir mystery set in 1947 China. This play is published by Samuel French. His short play STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES was picked as one of the Best 10-Minute Plays of 2009 and published by Smith & Kraus. His other plays include A BOOK BY ITS COVER; DARK SIDES OF THE MOON; THE GHOST BUILDING; and 10-minute plays A BOY, A GIRL AND A PUPPET WITH A COWBOY HAT; DOGS ARE EVIL; and EATING FRENCH. A Durfee Foundation grant recipient, Damon has been invited to many theatre conferences including the Last Frontier Theatre Conference and the Cultural Conversations Theatre Festival. His pieces have been presented in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Alaska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, London and Singapore.

About writing AZIZA:
The current struggle between Islam and Christianity is nothing new. For a long time, Spain was ruled by the Islamic Moors, from the late 8th Century to the eve of Columbus setting sail for the New World, a period longer than 1492 to present day. While Islamic Spain was known for its religious tolerance, all good things come to an end, and so they did, resulting in the bloody expulsion of the Moors from Spain in the late 15th Century. Now, as Islam re-exerts its strength in many parts of the world, conflicts are again sharpened.

My interest as a playwright is to uncover universal themes and issues through a juxtaposition of the past and present, in a non-naturalistic way, with a majority of the acting roles written for people of color. I created AZIZA not just as a character piece, but also as a vehicle to further the current “clash of civilization” discussion, spotlighting the tragic consequences of repressive thinking that still exists in many parts of the world today.

The play’s production history:
Feb 2008 – Workshop production at Cultural Conversations Theatre Festival at Penn State University
April 2008 – Finalist, Long Beach Playhouse’s New Works Festival
May 2008 – Reading at Long Beach Playhouse
May 2008 – Semi-Finalist, Reverie Productions’ Next Generation Playwriting Contest
Jun 2008 – Staged reading at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference, Alaska
Feb 2009 – Invited to the Staging the Middle East Conference, University of California, Riverside

What are your links to the Mediterranean?

Despite looking 100% Asian, some Spanish blood courses through my body.

Damon’s play AZIZA will be featured in the Between the Seas staged readings, on Monday October 18th, 6-8 pm at Solas Bar [232 East 9th str.]

Playwright profiles: Noelle Ghoussaini

14 Oct

BTSblog presents you the playwrights of the first Between the Seas staged readings event.

Noelle Ghoussaini is an American-Lebanese playwright, director and arts educator. She received her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University in Performance Studies and French and her MA in Arts Politics from NYU. Over the past few years, she has worked for numerous non-profit arts organizations in Chicago and New York City, teaching theatre, dance, photography and playwriting. After completing her Masters in May, she traveled to Palestine where she taught dance at the Freedom Theatre in the
Jenin Refugee Camp. She is currently working as an assistant director for Brave New World Theatre Company and Culture Project. She is also directing Marjuan Canady’s one woman show, Girls? Girls! Girls, which opens at the United Solo Festival in November of this year. She is thrilled to have her third original play, Ruth and the Great Gust of Wind, included in the Between the Seas festival.

Writing Ruth and the Great Gust of Wind
After graduating from college, about 3 years ago, I knew I wanted to write a historical narrative. I began searching for ideas, themes, historical figures that inspired me. I was struck, therefore, when my sister-in-law’s father told me about his aunt, Ruth Reynolds, who was born and raised in South Dakota, but dedicated the majority of her life to the struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico. I quickly learned that there was a large archival section of the Centro de Estudios Puertoriquenos at Hunter College dedicated to her story, with over 40 boxes of first hand documents and over a hundred hour long interviews with Ruth transcribed, detailing her involvement in the Puerto Rican independence movement. I began the research process immediately. Not only did I use the information gathered at the library, but I took two trips to Puerto Rico to attend meetings, interview former Nationalists, historians and friends of Ruth. None of this research, however, could have been done without Blanca Vazquez, a professor at Hunter College and the woman who interviewed Ruth in the 1980s for the Centro’s Oral History project. She knew Ruth well and has supported this project with incredible dedication since its inception. I have since spent the past year and a half writing the script, which has gone through many incarnations. I organized readings and directed scenes from the play at NYU, but Between the Seas Festival is the first time an audience will hear the play in its entirety. The play is deeply rooted in historical truths, and although I have taken certain liberties in developing the drama of the story, the characters, events and facts represented in the play are closely unified with the information I gathered from my research.

How did you get into playwriting and what is the type of theater you are interested in?

Although I did not officially begin my work as a playwright until college, I think storytelling has always been in my blood. Since a very young age, I have always loved being part of the process of telling stories through performance. I started off as an actor at age 5, then director at age 16 and eventually moved into the territory of playwriting. I believed and continue to believe in the power of stories to open new spaces in people’s imagination and to question traditional representations of history and identity. I am particularly interested in theatre’s potential to examine and re-imagine cross-cultural dialogue within a political, social and economic context. Theatre that pushes the boundaries and defies conventions.

What does the Mediterranean mean to you?

The Mediterranean sparks ephemeral thoughts and images of my childhood. It means visiting family in Lebanon and long days near the water. It links me to my ancestors, the Phoenicians, who sailed its seas, thousands of years ago. And it ties me to the Middle Eastern nations that reside along its waters, and Arab peoples that have suffered deeply due political instability, oppression, apartheid and colonialism.

Noelle’s play RUTH AND THE GREAT GUST OF WIND will be featured in the Between the Seas staged readings, on Tuesday October 19th, 8-10 pm at Solas Bar [232 East 9th str.]

Playwright profiles: Kato McNickle

13 Oct

BTSblog presents you the playwrights of the first Between the Seas staged readings event.

Kato McNickle is a Connecticut-based playwright, director, and artist. ARIADNE ON THE ISLAND is 2010 Clauder Award recipient and 2008 O’Neill National Theater Conference finalist. Other recent playwriting awards include: a 2008 Heideman Award finalist with Actors Theatre of Louisville for ABOUT A HUNDRED PANCAKES; Theatre for Youth National Playwriting Award 2010 for CHANCE OF RAIN: A NOAH RIFF; a 2007 O’Neill National Theater Conference finalist for MINOTAURS. TOREROS; and an Ensemble Studio Theatre New Voices Fellow for FENCERS. Has studied playwriting with Paula Vogel, Bonie Metzgar, and Donna DiNovelli. Is Vice-President of the Mystic Paper Beasts, a Connecticut-based puppetry troupe and partner of The Dragon’s Egg Performance Space. Holds a BA from Brown University in Ancient Studies. Member of the Dramatist Guild and the Star Wars Fan Club.

How ARIADNE ON THE ISLAND was created:
Ariadne on the Island is an expansion on a moment from an earlier play called Minotaurs. Toreros. While workshopping Minotaurs there was a beat that the two actresses played during the second evening’s performance, a moment of a deep truth being spoken that was refused by the hero. “Ahh,” I thought, “that moment could be a whole play.” A whole play that drives toward a deep truth that, once spoken, acts as a wedge that splits the couple. I began work on this play idea as part of a class I was taking at Brown University with Bonnie Metzgar. She is an amazing dramaturg, with an uncanny ability to ask the right question at the right moment. She did that with this play, asking a question that exploded my understanding of the play-world, resulting in deeper character structures than I had originally imagined. I love moments like that, where creative explosions happen, happening because of the collaborative process of theater. So Ariadne and Minotaurs are sister plays, the same story told in different forms.

How did you get into playwriting and what is the type of theater you are interested in?

Playwriting is a natural expansion on my work as a theater director, designer, and actor. It came about as a necessity when I worked for a touring comedy troupe as a theatrical and technical director for which we all had to write. In my local community I produced an annual new play festival, through which I met many playwrights, actors, other directors, and became well-versed in producing and directing new plays. I decided to make my leap from sketch comedy to full-plays by enrolling in a class offered by the O’Neill National Theater Institute taught by Donna Dinovelli. I then spent that entire summer observing the National Playwrights Conference under Lloyd Richards, and read every book on playwriting that I could find.

My Theater Manifesto: Theater is a generous act. We go to the theater to fall in love. We fall in love with the play, fall in love with the work, fall in love with the company. It is important to respect commitment over talent. I can work with commitment. Talent without commitment quickly becomes destructive and a drain on the ensemble. Plays are not perfect entities, they are flawed, the actors are flawed, the audience is flawed, or late, or coughing, or who knows what. And still, we make theater. The progeny of American Realism is film, not theater. Current dramaturgy owes more to the American Musical Form than from the American Realists. Theater is a house of magnificence and eloquence and joyful giving.

What does the Mediterranean mean to you?

The story goes that my grandmother was born during the voyage to America, and so became the first US citizen in the family. The Mediterranean therefore carries with it strong associations of origin and blood-ties. Above her dining table my grandmother displayed a plate depicting Oedipus answering the Sphinx. That image – a reproduction of 5th century Athenian pottery art – has stayed with me from childhood until now. It has inspired a lifelong inquiry into ancient thought, philosophy, arts, religion, and points of Western culture inspired by and borrowed from a common Greco-Roman heritage.

Kato’s play ARIADNE ON THE ISLAND will be featured in the Between the Seas staged readings, on Monday October 18th, 8-1O pm at Solas Bar [232 East 9th str.]