Karagiozis, the beloved barefoot key figure of shadow theater, stages a comeback
The shadow theater of Karagiozis has its own special place in the Greek entertainment industry. World-weary and immortal, the daydreaming hero is making a comeback all around the country, bringing smiles to children’s faces. What if the classic Greek antihero is competing with Playstation consoles, computer games, the heroes of Marvel Comics, remote-controlled helicopters and hundreds of fictional characters? Poking fun at himself, his friends, the Pasha, the crisis taxes and at the day-to-day lives of his audience, the barefoot shadow theater figure has been reappearing at public squares, beaches, fetes and parties, regaining the popularity that made him an entertainment staple in the first half of the 20th century.
Behind the white cloth, young Greek puppeteers are learning the craft from the masters and adding their voices and experiences to give Karagiozis a new, contemporary flair. One of these young players is Alexandros Melissinos, a 34-year-old from the Ionian island of Cephalonia, who apprenticed with his father before taking over the small family business.
“I have been puppeteering professionally since I was 14,” Alexandros told Kathimerini. “Until then I served as an assistant to my father and other masters.”
The love that his father, Iasonas Melissinos, had for the shadow theater was passed down to his son during a different age. Now children take short reality breaks between the television, cell phone or tablet.
For Alexandros, Karagiozis has been “reborn from his ashes.”
“Just as his light was almost extinguished, he reappeared,” said Alexandros. “We are again at a time when he is current, modern and contemporary. He found a way to get back into the thick of things. Maybe, after the rude awakening by the crisis from a period of false prosperity, the classic line ‘We’ll eat, we’ll drink, and to bed we’ll go hungry’ resonates with the public.”
Alexandros’s father, Iasonas, explained how the Greek version of Karagiozis (inspired by the Turkish shadow theater) started to gain popularity in the early 20th century. “It was a spectacle for adults, performed in coffee shops. The jokes were very sexual,” he said. “Over time it evolved into a spectacle for children, and after enjoying almost exclusive status for quite a while it’s existence was challenged by the advent of television and later by digital technology, only to come back stronger during the crisis.”
According to Alexandros, Karagiozis is also a brand name.
“His name has power, even though it is sometimes used as a derogatory term [like clown]. It is so suggestive: He is a hero, an anti-hero, the archetypal Greek and much, much more,” said Alexandros. “He is an Aristophanic character who pokes fun at himself first and then at others. Maybe it is this that gives me the moral right to ridicule people and situations through the character.”
The fact that young people are taking an interest in Karagiozis is the key to his rebirth and possibly to his continued popularity.
“Each player’s personality rubs off on the characters,” said Alexandros. “I have imbued my performances with elements of my own, which are based on my ideas and experiences. It is a marriage that allows you to stay true to the character while making it personal.”
Without relying on new technologies but rather a simple white sheet stretched over a frame, the shadow theater is one of the oldest forms of interactive theater.
“Its immediacy is a very important element,” said Alexandros. “Using modern lingo, we would say it’s an interactive performance. It is not static. That makes the audience part of the show.”