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Theater Review: Filiki Eteria Impresses New York Audience

NEW YORK – The Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation presented the play Filiki Eteria for three performances April 21-23 at The Tank Theater in Manhattan. The play was performed in Greek with English supertitles.

The fates of the Greek Revolution of 1821 were presented in the form of a theatrical mystagogy during Holy Week in New York, in a show that received standing ovations from the American audience.

As opposed to other countries and to what used to happen a few decades ago in Greece, and with a few exceptions, it seems that nowadays there is no interest in the creation of films, theatrical plays or TV series with historical themes, something surprising considering both the multitude of themes that Greek history has to offer and the interest of the public – that is passionately seeking retellings of past events, recent and more distant.

Drawing from the Bicentennial of Greek Independence, the playwrights Ioli Andreadi and Aris Asproulis chose to enter a dialogue with this theme, deciding to write a new play Filiki Eteria: The Brotherhood behind the Revolution. The play was presented at the avant-garde New York theater The Tank, where director Andreadi had presented her own take on Euripides’ Ion three years ago.

The Right Choice

Miltiadis Fiorentzis as Emmanouil Xanthos in the play Filiki Eteria, at The Tank Theater in New York. Photo: Aris Asproulis

The story of the Greek Revolution of 1821 is a complex, labyrinthine journey uniting places, people and events. It takes place in the whole of Europe and beyond. From Odessa (now Ukraine), where the Society of Friends was founded, to Petersburg and Ioannis Kapodistrias, to Vienna with Rigas and Metternich, to Paris, Pisa and Trieste of the flourishing Greek diaspora, to Constantinople, center of the Ottoman Empire and the eternal object of desire to the enslaved Greeks, to Ioannina and Ali Pasha, to Roumeli and Morias, to the “marble threshing floors” of most battles and heroic sacrifices of war, to Missolonghi of sacrifice and Lord Byron, to Hydra, Spetses and Psara, the three islands that took part in the naval warfare, to Epidaurus of the emblematic Constitution and the breathtaking “in front of God and Men,” to the tormented, until today, Haiti, the first country to recognize free Greece, to the USA of the many Philhellenes, to London, where the Protocol of Greek Independence was signed, the ”Fight of the Genus,” to use some of the terms of the protagonists, offers numerous themes to the historian. And to the playwright.

Some of these themes are widely known to the public from school, public debate, TV shows, and early Greek films.

However, the characters of the three founders of the Friendly Society (Filiki Eteria) do not belong to the themes that are widely known to the public – this theme remains a mystery even among specialists.

This is what, right from the beginning, made the theatrical endeavor of Andreadi and Asproulis appealing: they focused on a fascinating theme.

Far away from mainland Greece, in Odessa, three unknown young Greeks, not quite successful, with no power, financial or other, founded a secret fraternity, which, a few years later, would manage to fight against a powerful Empire and change the fate of Europe regarding a series of important issues, like the ones mentioned in the recent book 1821: The Greek Revolution and the Making of Modern Europe by Mark Mazower.

The next challenge is to combine two levels; on the one hand, to explain the “mystery” of the Friendly Society’s success – against all odds. It is because of this success that the protagonists rise to mythical proportions. On the other hand, there is the historic and theatrical need for the human dimension that contains their motives, their many weaknesses, their mishaps and their contradictions – especially after Alexandros Ypsilantis, the leader of the Revolution, became a character as well, next to the three founders of the Friendly Society.

The play

Actors Vasiliki Troufakou and Nikolaos Karagkiaouris in a scene from Filiki Eteria performed at The Tank Theater in New York. Photo: Aris Asproulis

Alongside their influences, the two playwrights have delved into the bibliography and the primary sources – the personal documents of the story’s protagonists – with a profound historical gaze. Both of them have a background in the humanities and have conducted field research (Andreadi holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance, Asproulis holds a PhD in Sociology). Perhaps this is among the reasons why, as the play progresses, we can recognize many of the problems discussed by historians about the Friendly Society.

The two writers surpassed every obstacle presented to them by the theme – they did not oversimplify, they did not impose their political views, they did not overdramatize, they did not flatter the audience’s prejudice. They masterfully dealt with the challenge, choosing an effective point of view that brought to light the main themes and artfully described the psychology of each character.

With autobiography at its center, the characters sometimes sharing information about what happened even after their death, the play manages to focus on the human side of the protagonists and a ‘de profundis’ anatomy of their soul.

Exceptional direction – Strong theatrical experience

Exactly as it happened in the case of Ion, three years ago, Ioli Andreadi has a unique ability to create exceptional theatrical action with minimal – but very effective – theatrical means.

In the case of the Friendly Society, her focus on the shadows, her use of penetrating light coming from the torches that the director handled herself, that focused only on the actors’ faces, her decisions regarding the constant change between the three levels of the stage, as well as the English translation of the play, enhanced by the director with some very valuable information, were only some of the elements that turned historical facts into an evening of theatrical methexis.

Admirable acting

Miltiadis Fiorentzis as Emmanouil Xanthos in the play Filiki Eteria, at The Tank Theater in New York. Photo: Aris Asproulis

I also have to mention the top level of acting by the four Greek actors, led in a superb way by Andreadi, their director.

Nikolaos Karagkiaouris was dynamic and strong, interpreting Tsakalof’s confidence and his decision to take revenge, while using his tender notes as well – melancholy, nostalgia and the realization that he was betrayed.

Miltiadis Fiorentzis, more internal melancholy, moved with great ease, in his exploration of a wide range of psychological traits of the most controversial – and, perhaps, anti-heroic – hero, Emmanouil Xanthos.

Vasiliki Troufakou narrated in a very strong manner the story that preceded the Revolution in 1821. She then moved with ease between the decisive-dynamic and the more humane-melancholy elements of Nikolaos Skoufas. She was captivating when, in a rather uncomfortable position, she interpreted Greece, resembling a 19th century painting.

Despoina Sarafeidou was more internal and mature when interpreting Alexandros Ypsilantis, portraying the bold romanticism, the values, as well as the controversies, the guilt and the unbearable pain of losing the young soldiers of the Sacred Band.

Standing Ovation

The audience in New York received the show in an enthusiastic way, many visibly moved by the performance and with tears in their eyes as they gave many rounds of applause to the actors and their director.

Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation & Attica Region

I want to congratulate the Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation for their choice to produce and present this show in Greece and the Attica Region for bringing the show to New York, where I was able to witness it.

Greek Theater and the Greek diaspora

The new generations of the Greek diaspora need the Greek theatre, as part of their Greek education and identity. My wish is that such endeavors – like Filiki Eteria and Ion – continue. It is rather important that the dynamic Foundations dealing with this subject on both sides of the Atlantic, help the creators, Ioli Andreadi and Aris Asproulis, to continue their vision to turn Greek theatre into an exportable cultural product.

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