Kara­giozis, the beloved bare­foot key fig­ure of shadow theater, stages a come­back

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY TASOS ECONOMOU

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.”

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