Saturday, May 10, 2014
There is a finance minister, a school teacher, a married couple, a young man and an air steward. They are flying on a Boeing 747 from Athens to New York when suddenly their aeroplane crashes and they land in the jungle. This certainly sounds like the beginning of an anecdote. It also is the basic premise of the play «Οι Απελπισμένοι,» (The Desperate), performed here in Australia by a troupe of visiting Greek actors, among them, the pneumatic heartthrob Kostas Sommer, the infinitely talented Vasia Trifylli and one of the last of the great Greek comic genius of the golden age of cinema, Kostas Voutsas.
In keeping with its title, this was a play I desperately wanted to enjoy, my unrequited love affair with Vasia Trifylli having being kindled quite by chance when my auditory faculties were unexpectedly assailed by the grating nasal tones of her voice, in Ραντεβού στα Τυφλά, a Greek dating show, on my first ever trip to Greece. As for Kostas Voutsas, a childhood idol, I owe to him an hour of uncontrollable laughter, when, in the movie «Εγώ Ρεζίλεψα τον Χίτλερ,» as a failed actor, he posed as a German soldier, calling his friend Fotis for help in pseudo-German thus: «Φώτεν Βοήθειεν.» I fell from my chair, convulsing in mirth. In his glory days, his sense of timing, and vis comica - the ability to make people laugh was impeccable and it was largely owing to an irrepressible yearning to witness this demi-deity tread the boards one last time that I resolved to present myself at the preordained time.
Giorgos Valaris, the author of the play, in introducing himself, stated that his work was partially in the form of a review, typical of those performed in Greece, that touched upon the difficult state of affairs prevailing in the homeland but, he hoped, also conveyed a sense of optimism that no matter what, the Greek people would pull through. Valaris' need to explain the play prior to its performance disconcerted me. Did it convey a sense of insecurity about the quality of the play, or rather of the playwright's estimation of the capacity of the audience to understand it? It surely was not the latter, for Valaris was warm, generous and enthusiastic on the stage, establishing an immediate rapport with the audience and filled with a sense of foreboding, I began to suspect the former.
What followed was two hours of brilliantly performed toilet humour, punctuated by overly loud sound effects and a few desultory attempts at lip synching. All the actors were highly talented, their scripted ad libs and scatological asides to the audience expertly performed and rapturously received and their sense of timing impeccable. By far the stand out performance was that of local boy Christos Ballas, who, in acting the Salonican lout, assumed the swagger of same with verisimilitude, even adopting a convincing rendition of said lout's patois. He moved about the stage with ease delivering his series of jokes in a masterly fashion and dare one say bravely, for most of these, having to do with the size of his penis, were quite poor.
Sadly, had Kostas Voutsas not been present, the play would have been none the poorer for it. His part seemed to be a mere cameo, a ploy to attract patrons to see the play, for apart from a few wolf whistles and asides, his performance was limited to sitting on a box, reading a piece of paper, upon which one suspects the script of the play was printed. Though we adore him nonetheless, we wish we could have been witnesses to more of his genius than the paltry script allowed.
The major problem with the performance was the absence of a plausible plot. When the aeroplane crashed, Vasia Trifylli as a frustrated schoolteacher explained that she was trying to emigrate to America as she was sick of the lack of knowledge of her students in class. Voutsas as Greek finance minister was accosted by Vasia Trifylli in platitudes about being uncaring, divorced from reality and having ruined the Greek economy. Giorgos Valaris, as demented air steward and son of the school teacher spent half of the play walking around asking "coffee, tea?" in a way that was totally disjointed from the play and yet elicited some smirks, as it reminded the audience of Olympic airways air hostesses - at least before the joke was repeated for the tenth time, and the other half coming out as a gay Greek in love with a black US lawyer from Mali. We learn that Christos Ballas, the Salonican Romeo who claims to have bedded Vana Barba among others and to be well endowed is actually traveling to the US in order to obtain a penis extension and that Kostas Sommer and Eleni Karakasi, a married couple in crisis, were traveling to the US in order to rekindle their marriage, while arguing about farting and being overweight. Then, as deus ex machina, a helicopter descends and whisks them all away.
In other words, we gain no insight into the Greek crisis, the cause of the malaise, the banality of corruption or how people are coping. None of the protagonists actually seem to be fleeing a crisis. The audience is left wondering whether in fact the helicopter descending to rescue the trapped survivors is symbolic of the Greek people' s propensity to abjure self-help and instead to blindly await a solution to their woes from the heavens. When all is said and done, all that the audience will distil from the exquisitely performed play, is a bunch of fart and fat jokes, sex jokes, black jokes and gay jokes.
Which leads one to a disconcerting feature both of the play and the audience. Fart jokes but not fat jokes, when taken in moderation, are funny. When repeated over again, even the talented and good looking Kostas Sommer, they become tiresome and yet the conflicted audience was able to laugh and groan in pain at the same time. Seeing Kostas Sommer attach his groin area to Eleni Karakasi's posterior was not as funny as was intended though it did indulge the voyeuristic proclivities of audience. Listening to Christos Ballas allude to the length of his penis and ploys with which to bed Greek media stars was informative linguistically and yet again unfunny and sexist. Yet the audience laughed and laughed some more. Listening to Vasia Trifylli say «να με χέσεις,» is acceptable in the Aristophanian tradition, but loses in effect after it is repeated. When Vasia Trifylli states that she hasn't heard Greek being spoken in the suburb of St Panteleimon, for twenty years, owing to the prevalence of Pakistani migrants, this is decidedly unfunny. Yet most disturbing were the black jokes and the gay jokes. While the premise that Vasia Trifylli's racist schoolteacher can overcome the shock of being told that her son is both gay and in love with a black man, when it is revealed to her that said black man is extremely wealthy and successful raises a wry smile, resorting to scatology in order to raise a laugh by repeating such words as such as «μάυρος,» and «πούστης» over again is indicative of a play in crisis, possibly the source of Valaris' insecurity. The question as to why this type of humour is appropriate in Greece but decidedly inappropriate in Australia is best left for another time.
It says much for the professionalism of the Απελπισμένοι actors, that despite the threadbare and implausible plot and the paucity of decent, original jokes, they managed to create a light-hearted atmosphere in which to entertain the audience, partially trading on the goodwill of an adoring crowd that loves anything Greek, but also on our innate Aristophanian love of smut. Perhaps Greek playwrights could, having mastered Aristophanes and Menander, review the subtleties and intricate balances of modern comedic masters such as Dimitris Psathas, Nikos Tziforos and indeed, some of the more accomplished and finely tuned British works. In this, Greek-Australians with emerging talents such as Christos Ballas in tow, who are possessed of their own established and not inconsiderable thespian tradition can surely lead the way.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 May 2014