Saturday, January 16, 2021

MEDEA STREAMED FROM THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF GREECE

By James Karas 

In 431 BC Euripides submitted Medea as part of a trilogy to compete for what we may classify as the ancient Olympics of Drama. His competitors were Sophocles and Euphorion (the son of Aeschylus). Euphorion came in first, Sophocles, second and Euripides third. Medea is the only surviving play from that year’s competition.

Undaunted by the pandemic, the National Theatre of Greece has streamed a production of the play to be viewed around the world live on January 10, 2021. The production may more accurately be described as a recital of the play due to the severe restrictions imposed to fight the virus that is ravaging the world.

The recital is produced by the newly formed Classical Drama Research Theatre of the National Theatre. It is directed by Martha Frintzila who also plays Medea.  There are two other actors (Andreas Konstantinou and Thanos Tokakis) who play all the other roles, including the Chorus of Corinthian Women. There are three musicians on stage (Panagiotis Manouilidis, Vasilis Mantzoukis and Nikos Papaioannou who play various instruments and sing/recite some lines.


A recital has its drawbacks. It may uncharitably be described as boxing with one hand tied behind your back. But there are many recitals especially of operas and a good boxer can do a lot and Frintzila does. There is very little movement during the performance for Covid-19 related reasons.  Medea is seated on a raised area draped in black coverlets and dressed in black. In fact, everything in the small playing area is aggressively black including the ubiquitous rocks strewn on the stage.

The two actors playing all the characters accords with what Athenians saw in 431 BC. The Chorus is the exception, of course. The actors would have worn different masks for each character. In this production there were no masks and at times it was hard to distinguish which character they represented. 

Frintzila takes liberties with the text, as do most directors, but she transposes some of Medea’s lines to the two actors. One of the most dramatic scenes in the play is Medea’s heart wrenching farewell to her children in Episode 5. She is bent on revenge but her resolve almost falters when she is about to send her children to their death. I cannot understand the reason for the transposition of lines in a pivotal scene. Frintzila has a beautiful, resonant voice and she should be heard reciting all her lines. Some of the choral odes are recited by the musicians. 

The black-clad Frintzila with braided hair looks regal and commanding. She recites her lines meticulously and expressively. She is almost static almost throughout the play until the end when she unbraids her hair, sheds some of her clothes and throws her arms in the air and does modified dance movements of triumph.

Konstantinou and Tokakis move around the playing area, lie down and recite most of the lines of the play with some help from the musicians.

The music, with some exceptions, has Eastern tones, almost invariably dramatic, played by 2 double basses, percussion, a guitar, and a keyboard.   

The English title of the production is given as Medea’s Son(g)s with appropriate references to the children and the operatic provenance of the play.  

The streaming was advertised as having English subtitles. It may well be my severely limited technical competence, but I was unable to find them.

Despite the obvious limitations that are not the fault of the director or the cast, this was a highly creditable production of a complex play. We saw Aeschylus’s’ Persians last July streamed from Epidaurus and one hopes that this will become a frequent habit.

At the premiere of Medea at dawn in the spring of 431 BC about 15,000 Athenians saw the play in the Theatre of Dionysus. The streaming was viewed by about 1300. The National Theatre has a world to conquer live or through streaming. We can’t wait.

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Medea by Euripides was streamed live by the National Theatre of Greece on January 10, 2021. https://www.n-t.gr/

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. This review appeared first in the newspaper.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN MACEDONIA - MEMORIES OF ARMENOHORI

By James Karas

In the north-western corner of Greece, a stone’s throw away from the borders of Albania and North Macedonia, lies the city of Florina. A few kilometers east of Florina lies a village of ancient lineage, incomparable beauty and immeasurable importance. The allotment of these attributes to this village is not based on any unreliable esthetic criteria or mere human judgment. It is based on the simple fact that I was born there. Armenohori is the most beautiful village in Greece.

There is archeological evidence (not based on the fact that I was born there) that the village has been inhabited for at least the past three and a half thousand years. Alexander the Great’s grandmother, Eurydice, was a princess from Lynkestis (the ancient name of the area) and I firmly hold that he went by my village many times on his way to visit his relatives. In this case, faith trumps lack of historical evidence.

I spent about a decade of my childhood in Armenohori, back in the 1950’s and it has left me with memories that are, as Ernest Hemingway said about Paris in the 1920’s, a moveable feast.

In the 1950’s Armenohori was an agrarian village where little had changed since the time Princess Eurydice of Lynkestis (mother of Philip II) left to marry King Amyntas III of Macedon. There was no electricity, no plumbing and nothing mechanical. Water was brought in from a well at the edge of the village in pitchers that resembled those used in the Bronze Age. Although horses were around, the most frequently used source of power was a team of oxen. It was an integrated society that still told stories about the Turks (the area was liberated in 1912) and had lived through world wars, famines and a civil war. The villagers were completely self-sufficient and remembered with pride that while people were dying in the streets of the big cities of Greece during World War II, no one went hungry in our village.

Life in the village was centered around work and religious holidays. Easter was the most important religious event but Christmas provided the most excitement for the children. One great tradition was the kalanda which started with the lighting of bonfires in every neighbourhood (mahala) during the night before Christmas Eve.

Gathering the wood for the bonfires was the job for youngsters and it took weeks of scavenging to find enough (mostly) twigs. Armenohori is in a valley with very few trees around and the houses were heated mostly with coal. Finding wood therefore was no easy task and we had to go out in the country looking for some dead tree or shrub that had not been carried away already. 

ARMENOHORI

There was an open space near the gate of my house and that was where the bonfire was lit around midnight. We piled the wood in my yard near the front gate and got up as soon as our mothers would let us. We carried the wood across the road to the open space and lit the fire. I still remember my mother telling me that I had to get some sleep or she would not let me go.

Naturally, there was fierce competition about which neighbourhood would have the biggest bonfire. That depended on the number of youngsters of the mahala and their industry. My neighbourhood had pride of place when I was small but by the time I was ten, many of the houses had been left empty. The villagers had started leaving for Australia and Canada. The handful of us that were left did our utmost to keep up. One Christmas, we gathered in my yard to carry the wood to the bonfire and discovered that nothing had been left. Youngsters from another mahala had come and carried away every twig.

My mother woke up the other neighbors (my father had already left for Canada) and they all pitched in and in a short time there was enough wood to start a respectable fire.

The tradition was that the youngsters started the fire and the men joined them before dawn. The men brought tsipouro and chestnuts and sat around the fire eating and drinking. The women were at home preparing for Christmas.

Just before dawn all the children from the village gathered at the gate of a house on the edge of the village. This was the starting point for visiting every house in the village where we were given a chestnut or a potato. The chestnuts were usually boiled and sometimes raw; the potatoes (given by poorer families) were always boiled.

The anticipation for the woman in the first house to come out and give us the chestnuts was no less than waiting for a rock star to appear. When she came to the gate, we rushed at her as if she were about to distribute manna to Moses’ followers. From there we followed a well-defined route that allowed us to visit every house in the village.

There was even more excitement when we stopped by the homes of relatives where we could expect a coin in addition to a few extra chestnuts. Five, ten or twenty centimes was the going rate depending on the wealth of your relative. These were the coins with the hole in the middle and, to put it in context, a drachma had one hundred centimes.

It took several hours to visit every house in the village, and you ended up with a satchel full of chestnuts and maybe a couple of drachmas. In short, you were wealthy.

The fat guy with the red suit and the ruddy cheeks also known as Santa Claus had not heard of Armenohori yet and we had not heard of him either. I first saw him on a Christmas card that my sister sent me from Canada, but he made no impression on me and I had no idea that he was supposed to drop in through the chimney on Christmas and bring me presents. The only presents we got were a couple of luxury items such as apples or oranges and they were just handed to us. The Christmas tree had not been invented yet. My version of Santa Claus was of course St. Basil but he wore a halo and looked like all the other scary saints that I saw in church and had to kiss on Sunday.

The traditional Christmas food in the village was pifti, boiled pig’s fat that had formed into a jelly with pig’s feet, knuckles and other such delicacies in it. It was larded with garlic and eaten cold. I could not get enough of the stuff. More than a half a century later, my sisters still make this item of peasant haute cuisine but, alas, my enthusiasm for eating it has been reduced to honoris causa and only a small plate, please.

The bonfires were lit again on New Year’s Eve and the same tradition was followed. St. Basil did arrive at midnight without any of his North American paraphernalia: no deer, no costume and no gifts except for some fruit on the table. On New Year’s Day we had the traditional vasilopita with the coin in it. It was cut in ritual fashion, one piece for each member of the family and one for the house. The pan was twirled around three times and we were then allowed to take the piece that stopped in front of us.

 Starting with Christmas, there is a name day to be celebrated every other day it seems. People named Christos, Stefanos, Vasilios, Fotis, Yannis and others have their saint’s day and an excuse for the men of the village to visit them for a drink and meze. The drink was almost invariably tsipouro which had been made a few weeks earlier in the village still. The women join the men for visits to close relatives but there were no restrictions on the men.

January 6 is the Epiphany and for Armenohori it meant that the whole village went to the river after church service. The priest, my grandfather, conducted a service there and threw a cross in the river. The water was cold and frequently had a thin sheet of ice on top but this did not stop the young men from entering the river in order to catch the cross. My mother would not allow me to get near the water – I was simply too young. The man who caught the cross was considered lucky and he and his friends went around the houses where they were given money. 

Armenohori is still there but my village has disappeared. When I returned as an adult the bridge that was a couple hundred yards from my house and where I used to play had changed completely. The huge steel span across a roaring watercourse of my memory had shrunk into a pot-hole ridden, rusty bridge that could fit only one car at a time. The river was a mere rivulet that in the summer went almost dry. I used to swim and catch fish in it when I was a child. The water buffalos, the sheep and cattle that crowded the muddy streets are gone and finding a parking space has become an issue. The grass was not as green, the sun was not as bright, even the roads had shrunk; all had changed.

The best parts, however, still remain. Like Keats’s Grecian Urn, what Armenohori has left me shall be forever new, forever warm, forever young and still to be enjoyed: it has left me with prime memories of undiminished splendor.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

TAMING OF THE SHREW – REVIEW OF STREAMING OF 1988 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas
 
The Stratford Festival of Canada has a fine library of filmed productions that are available in various forms. Some have been seen in cinemas, many on television and are available now free, on demand, on DVD or Blu-ray.
 
The Festival has made numerous production available for home viewing during the pandemic crisis. The 2020 season was cancelled and for many of us it was nothing short of a disaster. What is available for watching at home goes some ways in assuaging the loss.
 
There are a dozen major productions available on demand ranging from King Lear with Colm Feore, The Tempest with Martha henry, Timon of Athens with Joseph Ziegler, Coriolanus with Michael Blake, Macbeth with Ian Lake and others.
 
There are also some gems from older productions, and I watched the 1988 production of The Taming of the Shrew. I saw it 32 years ago and remembered it somewhat but unfortunately most of the details have been taken away by Lethe.
 
One of the interesting things about watching a performance that was filmed so many years ago was seeing so many familiar performers in their youth or remembering some that have died. Ricard Monette directed a top-notch cast, and the result was and remains a brilliant, imaginative, and simply hilarious rendering of the problematic play.
 
Monette sets the play in Italy in the 1950’s. There is liberal and comic use of Italian, Petruchio rides a Vespa, and some actors have “Italian” accents.
 
Monette finds or invents humour continually and many times unexpectedly. He makes short shrift of the Induction with the drunken Christopher Sly (Colm Feore) but what he keeps is funny. For example, the drunk Sly tries to light a cigarette but he cannot see the lighter properly, so he puts his hand over one eye and manages to light is smoke.
 
Colm Feore as Petruchio is agile, blissfully honest about his mercenary attraction to the curst Kate and somehow manages to reduce his apparent cruelty. Goldie Semple as Kate is no doubt abused but she never shows anger or suffering. When Petruchio tells her the sun is the moon and vice versa, she looks at him and smiles the way one would at an idiot making outrageous remarks. She knows him and seems certain that she will triumph.
 
When Kate goes after her sister Bianca (Kim Horsman) the scene becomes a gale of laughter. She whacks Bianca with a pillow and then takes her teddy bear, dismembers it limb by limb and tosses the pieces to her screaming sister. Hilarious.
 
When Lucentio (Henry Czerny) and his servant Tranio (Scott Wentworth) start undressing on stage so they can exchange their identities, as they lower their pants, two nuns come walking across the stage and it is simply funny.
 
Monette invests all the characters with humour including the prissy Gremio (Brian Tree) and the scholarly Hortensio (Geraint Wyn Davies)
 
Monette does not and cannot solve the central problem of the play which is the mistreatment and bullying of a woman into submission. But he covers it up by making Kate an intelligent woman who knows how to put up with her husband’s idiocies. Monette shows us that Kate is attracted to Petruchio after their forced kiss and that is emphasized even during the “Fie, fie” speech of submission at the end. Here Semple emphasizes the word love and she intones the word obey in a way as to produce laughter. Petruchio also shows love and the final kiss ends the play on a positive note.
 
The production was produced and directed for CBC television by Norman Campbell. The video is not quite to HD standards, but it is an intelligently made film of an outstanding production
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The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare is available from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival here: https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/AtHome

Friday, December 18, 2020

MADAMA BUTTERFLY – REVIEW OF GREEK NATIONAL OPERA PRODUCTION

 By James Karas

This is a review of Madama Butterfly produced by the Greek National Opera and streamed around the world.

No, that is not a misprint. There is a Greek National Opera (GNO) that is alive and kicking. It has a stunning new home in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Athens, and it is has produced and telecast a redoubtable production of Madama Butterfly. More about Greek opera later.

Performances of Madama Butterfly started in October and a recording was made in November just before all events were cancelled due to Covid-19. To their great credit they have decided to stream the recorded performance and remind us of the existence of the Greek National Opera.

Gianluca Terranova and Ermonela Jaho in GNO's Madama Butterfly

The production features Albanian Soprano Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly), the 15-year-old Japanese geisha who falls hopelessly in love with Lieut. Pinkerton of the United States Navy. She delivers a splendid Cio-Cio San. Not only does she sing with sterling vocal beauty but invests the role with emotional depth that is exhilarating and heart-breaking. We see the happy bride who is in love and will do anything to please her lover. In “Un bel di vedremo” she imagines Pinkerton’s return after having been abandoned three years before. There is longing, playfulness, beautifully imagined happiness, all done superbly by Jaho.

The tragic end is yet to come when she realizes the extent of Pinkerton’s perfidy and she has to give up her son and then her life. A performance full of vocal beauty and pathos.

Italian tenor Gianluca Terranova played Pinkerton as an arrogant, self-centered, amoral, “ugly American” who “marries” a young girl to satisfy his lust. Butterfly is a temporary wife, and he can get rid of her on a month’s notice when he has a real wedding with an American girl. Terranova is fine as a swaggering scoundrel and his voice soars to the high notes of his braggadocio. Director Hugo de Ana has him dressed all too casually in an open shirt and slacks. It does not quite befit a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who is most likely to wear a dress uniform.

Baritone Dionysios Sourbis as the American Consul Sharpless appears more nervous than sympathetic at the start, but he eventually sings and acts like a mensch when the extent of Butterfly’s tragedy strikes him in the face.

Mezzo-soprano Chrysanthi Spitadi deserves kudos for her performance as Butterfly’s faithful servant Suzuki. She sees and knows the truth and tries to help the besotted Butterfly. A completely sympathetic character done well by Spitadi.

Hugo de Ana gives us a classic, conservative production that has many fine details. For example, Butterfly has an icon, a rosary and wears blue jeans. She has renounced her entire cultural background to become an American wife and please Pinkerton. The final scene is done with deep pathos with Butterfly’s suicide handled with effectiveness and restraint.

De Ana goes overboard with some of his costumes for Butterfly’s visitors. Yamadori (Marios Sarntidis) and Bonzo (Yianni Yannisis) don huge, ridiculous wigs. The rest are mostly tasteful and there are some beautiful Japanese costumes.

The set is fairly Spartan but appropriate with skeletons of structures and backdrops indicating the port and appropriate lighting. There is judicious use of video projections especially during the interminable intermezzo.

Lukas Karytinos conducted the Orchestra of the GNO. Because of Covid-19, the size of the orchestra was reduced but it still sounded excellent. Unfortunately, there seems to be a problem with the hall’s acoustics. While the orchestra sounded fine, there was a difference in volume coming from the stage. The singers were never overwhelmed but there were times when it was difficult to hear them. When the main characters sang at full throttle, there was no issue. At other times there was.

Giorgos Koumendakis, the GNO’s Artistic Director, advises that more productions will be televised starting January 2021. That is an incredible step forward for Greek culture.

The Greek National Opera was formed in 1939 and it had its first production on October 25, 1940. In attendance were numerous notables including the Italian Ambassador to Greece, Emanuele Grazzi. He is the one that three days later, in the middle on the night of October 28, 1940 visited Dictator Ioannis Metaxas and delivered Italy’s ultimatum. By the morning, Greece had entered World War II. This production of Madama Butterfly marks the 80th anniversary of the 1940 opening.

There have been many productions since 1940 but very few have merited international attention. A young girl named Mary Kalogeropoulos sang on its stage during the war. She left Greece and went to Italy and became Maria Callas. There are many world-class singers and musicians, and all should be brought to Athens to make the world notice the GNO.

The GNO already has a large roster of in-house singers, dancers, musicians and behind-the-scenes personnel. It promises to telecast more productions to the world. We wait with anticipation and hope.  ______________

Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini is being streamed by the Greek National Opera. For more information go to:  https://www.nationalopera.gr/ or  https://tv.nationalopera.gr/

 

Monday, December 14, 2020

TOSCA – 1978 MET PRODUCTION STREAMING AND MUCH MORE

Reviewed by James Karas 

Have you heard or seen Tosca recently? How many times? Have you heard Maria Callas in her 1953 recording?

New York’s Metropolitan Opera offered us another chance to see Tosca by streaming its 1978 production. It is part of its daily streaming of productions new and old during the pandemic. It is a redoubtable show by any standard, but you may wish to complain about the pre-digital age video. You should not.

Tosca requires three topnotch singers: a soprano, a tenor and a baritone. With some exaggeration one can state that almost every topnotch soprano, tenor and baritone has recorded Tosca, many more than once, but more about that later.

Maria Callas

The production streamed for us featured Shirley Verrett as Tosca, Luciano Pavarotti as Cavaradossi and Cornell MacNeil as Scarpia. That is star power. Verrett started as a mezzo but had the high notes to sing soprano roles and she does a stunning Tosca. She has a richly toned voice and dramatic talent, and her Tosca has grand emotional depth and strength. She is coy and jealous in the beginning but progresses into a woman who is deeply in love in the duet with Cavaradossi. Her “Vissi d’arte” is almost a prayer and we relish her murder of Scarpia as she glorifies in her stabbing and cries “Muori donato! Muori, Muori!”

Luciano Pavarotti, who dominated the tenor repertoire, made his Met debut in the role of the heroic Cavaradossi. He sings with ease and assurance and his splendid middle range is a delight while the high notes seem to come effortlessly. Much younger then, he is physically adroit and gives us a memorable Cavaradossi.

Cornell MacNeil was one of the foremost baritones of the era and interestingly was directed by another outstanding Scarpia – Tito Gobbi. Gobbi sang Scarpia in perhaps the greatest recording of Tosca, the one with Maria Callas in 1953. MacNeil as Scarpia is made to look like Gobbi did in the role especially in the 1964 production at Covent Garden. That production, with Maria Callas of course, was directed by Franco Zeffirelli part of it is available on YouTube.

Gobbi’s adept production is Zeffirellian in its approach. He wants us to see details of the church in the first act and the room in the Palazzo Farnese in the second act as well as a giving us a good impression of the Castel Sant’ Angelo in the third act.

Zeffirelli produced his version of Tosca at the Met in 1985 and it was revived numerous times for the next 25 years. It starred Hildegard Behrens, Placido Domingo and Cornell MacNeill. It is lavish, opulent, stunning, vocally and physically. Enough said. Just see it.

Zeffirelli’s unforgettable production was replaced by Luc Bondy’s staging in 2009 and it was roundly booed. In 2017 Bondy’s production was replaced by one directed by David McVicar. The latter avoided Bondy’s pitfalls and gave a traditional production laden with many fine details that made it look fresh. It was a success.

Opera listeners come in several categories. Normal people who see and listen to standard repertory productions. They come in various gradations of dedication to the art. In the other extreme are the opera buffs or aficionados. There dedication has no bounds – they are nuts – who want every recording of their favourite opera or singer and argue about her high notes, his wobbly low notes and everything in between.

If you see one production of, say, Tosca, you want to see a couple more, no? Yes. But which one do you choose? In 1978, a critic reviewed recordings of Tosca and listed a mere 24 complete recordings starting in 1920. That is a pittance, and most aficionados would have had no difficulty acquiring most of them. Digital recordings, videos and streaming arrive, and the number of recordings goes through the roof. It seems that there are more than 250 recordings of Tosca today. Trying hearing, seeing or buying most of them!

But mention Tosca and all afficionados will immediately point to the 1953 Callas, Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano recording. It is spectacular in every aspect and listening to the enhanced CD has the advantage of letting you imagine the action. As I said almost every soprano has recorded Tosca and you will not go wrong with Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi, Montserrat Caballe and many others. But like a Muslim going to Mecca, you cannot go though life by not hearing that recording.

There is no shortage of Tosca recordings available on DVDs and on YouTube. In 1976 Gianfranco de Bosio made a notable film with Raina Kabaivanska, Placido Domingo and Sherril Milnes in the main roles. It has the advantages of a movie without interfering with the music or the libretto We see the exteriors and interior of Sant’ Andrea Della Valle Church, get a view of the Palazzo Farnese as well as the Castel Sant’ Angelo. The great scenes are a bonus to the stunning performances of the young singers. A couple of hours well spent.

But things do not always work out. If you want to see the “big names” together in a production that stinks, see Tosca in the 2000 production at the Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma. The stage looks like something you find in a high school auditorium. It has no real orchestra pit and the musicians are encroaching on the playing area which is tiny. The set is pathetic, what you can see of it when the camera is not relentlessly zeroing in on the faces of the singers.

 It was the 100th anniversary of the opera and Franco Zeffirelli directed it. He did not have much to work with and crammed whatever he could on the tiny stage. Venezuelan soprano Ines Salazar as Tosca sang forcefully and well but she looked like she just stepped out of the shower and had no time to do her hair. Luciano Pavarotti sang Cavaradossi and wowed the audience. They gave him thunderous applause and Juan Pons was Scarpa. Fine singing but simply awful production values.

Covid-19 is making life hell but a few hours with Tosca, Maria Callas and a few others like her and life will seem a lot better.

____________________________

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. This review appeared first in the newspaper

Thursday, December 3, 2020

A FOREIGN COUNTRY – REVIEW OF NOVEL ABOUT GREEK IMMIGRANTS IN CANADA

A FOREIGN COUNTRY  
by Fotios Sarris
Dumagrad Books, Toronto
416 pages, $19.95
ISBN 978-1-988887-05-0.

Reviewed by James Karas

There are several hundred thousand Canadians of Greek descent in Canada made up mostly of those who were born in Greece and came to Canada after World War II and their offspring. One source states that there were 300 Greeks in Canada in 1900 and that there are about 350,000 of us today.

They have done well but a shelf that I have tried to fill with books written by them in Canada is relatively small. Wikipedia lists only four Greek-Canadian Authors. They are Pan Bouyoucas, Tess Fragoulis, Thomas King and Dimitrios Roussopoulos. There are many more. Tess Fragoulis, in her Musings: An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature, includes samples of the writing of a dozen authors. There are others that I may not have heard of to my great shame.

 A Foreign Country, a first novel by Fotios Sarris, takes its position as an addition to that short list and as a major literary achievement on its own. The narrator is Alex Doukas, a 45-year old Montrealer running a pool hall that he inherited from his father in Mile End, a poor area of Montreal where immigrants from Greece settled in the 1950’s.

But the novel tells much more than the story of one family. It tells the history of an entire community of Greeks and by extension the story of Greeks from Pythagoras to the present. It is a story and a world that most immigrants and their children will recognize because to a startling extent it represents their personal experiences. It feels like you are reading your biography.

Andreas Doukas emigrates from a village near Thessaloniki, Greece in the 1950’s and starts working in a restaurant. A friend suggests that he marry his sister who works as a maid in Greece. She comes to Canada, they marry and have a son, Alex or Alexander.

Andreas and his wife are ill-suited for each other and there is a huge gap between father(s) and son(s). What is true of Mr. and Mrs. Doukas and their son holds true for a huge number of immigrants and their children. The fathers want to retain their Greekness as they brought it with them. Their children speak Greek badly and there is a chasm between the two generations much bigger, it seems, than that experienced by the Anglos who raise their offspring. Appearances may be deceiving.

Alex’s father runs a pool hall with fellow immigrants as his customers. The father wants to keep the old: the son wants to bring in the new. The fathers want to fight and argue about the politics of Greece; the sons are not interested in them. The fathers keep the Greek flag and the star of Vergina, the eternal Macedonian issue. They are furious at Canada’s recognition of the Republic of Macedonia under its constitutional name. The sons do not care about the issue and want to move forward.

The novel is a biography of every Greek immigrant to Canada. The unifying themes of the German occupation, especially the famine, the Civil War and all the traditions and rituals of patriotism, religion and history are embedded in everyone’s soul. But that does not hold true for their children. More often than not they consider themselves Canadian.

The patriotism of Andreas and his friends knows no bounds. When Greeks invented civilization the rest of humanity was in the trees. The common patriotic thread runs from time immemorial – Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato - to the present.

Alex is named Alexander after his grandfather but also after Alexander the Great. He is a Canadian and cannot quite fathom the patriotism of his father’s generation. It is another running thread that almost every child of immigrants can relate to.

It is that shock of recognition that made a big impression on me. It is what we say depends on our age. That is the biography of all of us that Sarris gives us.

Sarris has a marvelous comic sense and the section about child rearing is hilarious. The facts of life are simple. People get married and a child starts growing in the mother’s stomach. When the time comes, she is cut open with a knife and the baby comes out. His mother told him that her stomach was cut open and he was born. Alex is sure of that and nothing will dissuade him.

His friend tells him that girls do not have penises; they have holes. The mother has an egg in there, and the father covers it with cream and the baby is created. It comes out of the mother’s hole! No way says Alex. He sees a picture of a naked woman and there is no way a baby could come out of that small hole.

The only way to raise a Greek child is by the mother devoting all her life and love to him and force feeding him. Forget spurious arguments like a child will let you know when he is hungry. You do not have to force feed him? Nonsense. If you do not force feed him, he will die.  There can be very few if any Greeks who cannot relate to this attitude.

There are funny, moving and marvelous incidents while Alex is growing up. He meets with bullies and unpleasantness. He discovers books and Jews through Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler. The latter lived in St. Urbain, the same neighborhood that Alex is living in. It is an astonishing discovery.   

We go through his descent into what he tells us at the beginning of the book about himself:   At the beginning of the novel our hero or anti-hero is running a pool hall. He meets some old acquaintances who are successful. One of them is making films. Another one is a Lecturer, Media Communication Arts at a university and a writer.  Chronologically it is the end of Alex’s story and he will take stock of his life for the rest of the book. At 45 Alex feels that he has ruined his life completely, that he is a fraud and a failure waiting for his life to start. Maybe he has found peace between his ambitions and his limitations, but we doubt it and that is the end of his story in any event.

We go back and read Alex’s life story. In Toronto while studying for a PH.D. he has a tempestuous relationship with a medical student named Laura. He assaults her viciously and almost kills her. He returns to Montreal to visit his father to whom he has not spoken to for two years. He has had a heart attack and a stroke, but the visit ends up with Alex and hurling obscenities at him.

He tries to be a good son of a doting and perhaps over-protective Greek mother. He takes her to church every Sunday and lives with her as long as possible. He lies to her as he lies to just about everyone. In the end he tries to break away from her and reaches the apogee of moral criminality. He strikes her and as she is on the floor imploring him not to leave her, he spits on her. That is a despicable act in any culture, but it is far more pronounced in Greece. Nicholas Gage in Eleni, a paean to his mother who died so he can live, describes his attempts to find the “judge” who was responsible for her torture and murder during the Greek Civil War. Gage searches for the murderer intending to kill him him. He eventually finds him asleep in a chair. He is ready to kill him but realizes that killing him would be a denial of all that his mother stood for. He decides to deliver the ultimate insult: he spits on him. Alex’s mother is found a couple of days later dead, lying in her vomit and urine.

His murderous assault on Laura, the ultimate moral crime against his mother and his contemptuous treatment of his father should bring the ultimate feeling of guilt and remorse. It does not.  He is worried about about being arrested for his assault on Laura and about what his uncle knows about the death of his mother. 

His father is an adulterer, and a liar. He has fathered a child by another woman and he separates from Alex’s mother. There is an unsurmountable gap between father and son that will resonate with most Canadians perhaps regardless of their origin. It may be the tragedy of many immigrants and non-immigrants. 

A Foreign Country is probably autobiographical to some extent. Like Alex, Sarris has a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. Unlike his fictional character, Sarris is a communications instructor at Ryerson University.    

Sarris writes writes in a literate style and uses many Greek words. They reflect the speech of the immigrants who are speaking Greek. He explains most of them and also translates what was said in Greek word for word rather than put an approximate English translation. If you disagree and show your disapproval of what someone is saying, in Greek you say kolokithia (pumpkins). Sarris has the speaker say “pumpkins” which means nothing in English but in Greek could mean nonsense or bullshit. Non-Greek speakers may not enjoy all of his use of Greek, but it is an added pleasure for those who can.

In his rich and marvelous prose, he refers to a broad range of writers from Homer to T.S. Eliot, to Noam Chomsky, Nabokov, Chekhov, Freud and others.

In the end, Sarris gives us a a cool, sometimes hard, often ironic and humorous view of immigrants and the children. He eschews, thankfully, giving us a heroic tale of “my son the professional” by writes about a deeply flawed human being who may or may not find his moral compass.

 

Friday, November 27, 2020

PAUSE – REVIEW OF TONIA MISHIALI’S FILM AT EUROPEAN UNION FILM FESTIVAL

Reviewed by James Karas 

Director Tonia Mishiali’s Pause is the second Greek-language movie streamed by the 2020 European Union Film Festival. It Cyprus’s contribution the the Festival.

Pause is a sensitive, moving and almost relentless study of a woman at the end of her rope. We meet Elpida (Stella Fyrogeni) in a doctor’s office with her legs up on stirrups   being examined. The doctor (Marios Ioannou) recites some of the symptoms of menopause some of which are memory lapses, mood disorders, vaginal dryness, loss of sexual desire and perhaps some others. Elpida may be too young for menopause and the movie indicates that if she has any of these ailments they are not from menopause.

Elpida is disheveled, her hair is a mess, she wears no makeup and her face expresses misery, anxiety, pain, hopelessness and the image of a woman on the verge.

Stella Fyrogeni in the doctor's office
Mishiali takes us through Elpida’s ordinary, daily routines, such as shopping at the supermarket, cooking, doing laundry and looking after her husband Costas (Andreas Vasileiou.). We get a closeup of her existence with him who is an ape and that may be an insult to those fine mammals. We usually see him eating or more accurately stuffing his face, snoring and being a jerk. He speaks very little and the only time he shows any affection is when he addresses his parrot.

Elpida wants to colour her hair, get a computer or have money for gas. The answers to all these requests are negative and insulting. He even sells her jalopy of a car leaving her with no choice but to walk everywhere including the supermarket.

Elpida seeks an escape from the prison. She finds a “lover,” a house painter named Andrey (Andrey Pilipenko). She takes up some painting and attempts to run away. She gets dressed up, packs a suitcase and confidently walks away. But she returns. When Costas becomes unbearably obnoxious, she tosses a plate of food in his face. She goes out with her friend Eleftheria (Popi Avraam) and has fun at a disco.

The issue here is which, if any, of these events are real as opposed to illusions borne out of her desperation?

Mishiali gives us some hints but mostly she wants us to figure things out for ourselves. The day after she meets the painter, she finds a hickey on her neck and covers it up with makeup. We can assume that Andrey did it. But there is a subsequent car trip with him, and we may be certain that she is just imagining it?

For her outing to the disco with the appropriately named Eleftheria, Elpida puts on makeup, they drink and sing and find a few moments of happiness. Reality or illusion?

Mishiali in her expert directing provides few exterior scenes and the background is frequently blurry. There is no sense of location in the film except for the interior of Elpida’s mind. That is the only scene that counts. Her condition deteriorates throughout the 96 minutes of the film with the possible exception of the respite provided by her imagination or the reality of her relationship with the painter and her friend Eleftheria.

Eleftheria by contrast is vivacious, outgoing and a woman with guts. She prayed for her husband’s penis to dry up and for him to die. And guess what? Her prayers were answered, she tells us with glee. Elpida’s facial expression conveys the utter misery of a woman, of all women, trapped in hellish marriages. There are escape hatches and we watch as Elpida tries to find one for herself. In the end she leaves us with an extended gale of mysterious laughter.  

Mishiali, who also wrote the screenplay, wants us to see the physically and emotionally cramped apartment, the blurry surrounding world and the expression on Elpida’s face and soul. It is a masterful approach which evokes a superb performance from Fyrogeni and the supporting cast.

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Pause, written and directed by Tonia Mishiali, was streamed on November 19 and 20, 2020 as part of the European Union Film Festival. For more information see: www.euffto.com

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. This review appeared first in the newspaper