NEW YORK – From the days of Aristotle, Greeks have known catharsis is good for the soul. Actress Anthoula Katsimatides reminded modern Greeks and their friends of its power on October 3, evoking laughter and tears in her one-woman-show “What Will People Think?” at United Solo 2015, the world’s largest festival of solo acts. All a Greek-American needs to know for background is the title.
In Greek, English or Gringlish, it stings: “Ti Tha Pi O Kosmos?” The non-Greeks in the audience at Manhattan’s Theater Row cultural complex were properly briefed about such matters throughout the show, however, benefitting from skills Katsimatides polished when she worked for former New York Governor George Pataki. The other things non-Greeks needed to grasp were her larger-than-life father, Antonios, and the tiny island where he was born. Like everyone with roots there, she worships Nisyros, which she calls Gilligan’s Island. “It’s volcanic – it can blow any time and everyone on the island is nuts” – but she adores them all.
And the love that prevailed in her family, blended as it was with frustration when she was growing up that she made grist for her strong comedic mill, was palpable in the theater. Her mother, Calliope, bore and raised four children, George, John, Anthoula herself, and Michael (Mikey) – but Antonios ruled the roost.
“There were lots of rules,” she said, especially to be the best at anything you ever do. Second place was not a place you wanted to be. “What’s this thing, A minus?” her father would ask. Females, of course, had a few more rules, especially the requirement be a “kalo koritsi – a good girl.”
That meant, among other things, no boyfriends. Greek women were their father’s property – a deal sealed by grammar and their middle names – she was Anthoula Antoniou Katsimatidi – “say that three times fast. You can’t,” she said. Ideally, they did not leave the house until they are married off, at which point they become their husband’s property.
Battles over the rules probably paved the way to her political work. Katsimatides told of how she begged at 19 to go to Nisyros on her own, only to be slammed by “Ti tha pi o kosmos?” But by then the sharp-witted Katsimatides – she is a serial valedictorian – learned a thing or two and turned the weapon on her dad: “What would people say if it seems that Antonios Katsimatides doesn’t care enough about Nisyros to send his daughter there?” she asked.
She was on her way, and then she had the time of her life, including her first romance: Vassili. It seems every Greek-American girl had a Vassili, or a NIkiforo, or a Spiro, never to be forgotten. Brothers tended not to remember the names of the girls who stole their hearts.
But then her father heard about the strolls and motorcycle rides. “Katsika! – you goat!” he roared over the phone. Painful as it was then, she laughs about it now.
Later in life, she realized the significance of the birthday she shared with her father that made them both Capricorns. “He’s a goat, too!”
The high expectations were accompanied by pride and love. When Katsimatides was crowned Miss AHEPA in 1992 “my father was so proud you could see the light beam from his eyes.”
But great love only heightens pain when tragedy strikes. First there was the phone call that informed her about Mikey’s death. “I don’t know how I survived that year,” she said, notwithstanding the help she received from therapists and suicide survivor groups. “But I did,” she continued.
By the end of the day on September 11, 2001, her brother John, an employee with Cantor Fitzgerald, was also gone. He had helped her get through “that year.” The man she calls the Greek John Travolta eased her pain by taking her dancing – one of her talents that she did not develop. Acting, however, turned from an interest, to kind of therapy, to a full-blown profession.
Before the completion of the transition, she was devoted to the work she did with Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) as a liaison to families who lost relatives on 9/11. The next dose of pain was no more bearable for coming in more conventional form.
Her father, despite a heroic comeback from a potentially crippling injury, succumbed to a staph infection he picked up in the hospital. Katsimatides mourned him too, once again, as with her brothers, hearing posthumous praise, but there were some surprises.
When a man she met learned about her father’s passing, he couldn’t contain himself, pouring out his appreciation for Antonios’ generosity. In time, she heard many testimonials, but this first was the most touching. “I worked for him. He gave me my first job – he made the down payment on our house!”
The thrilling performance – Katsimatides did not skip a beat, despite her personal pain – became incandescent when she shifted to an entirely different persona, a woman drowning in obligations of the family way – the female version on Zorba’s “full catastrophe.”
Pregnant again, the woman went on and on about her frustration and regrets over not sharing the more glamorous parts of Katsimatides’ life. “And who met the Pope last week,” she moaned – It wasn’t me! “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,” she noted about the person she actually knows. “All the characters are real,” she told TNH. “The names are changed to protect the innocent” – “and the guilty,” one man added.
Because Katsimatides sold out the house on October 3, the festival invited her to do an encore performance at 9 PM on October 17. Tickets are available at telecharge.com.