November 19, 2018

Revisiting the foreign country of the past

The Gods of Strangers
by Elena Carapetis
State Theatre Company South Australia
Dunstan Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre.
November 15. Tickets: $32- $67.
Bookings . Bookings 131 246 or online
Duration: 2 hours 40 mins (including interval)
Until December 2.

“If a stranger knocks, you let them in – they could be a god in disguise.” But the publicity notes for The Gods of Strangers, a tri-lingual commissioned work, by Adelaide playwright Elena Carapetis, do not mention it might also be an unwelcome visit from the past.

Set in Port Pirie in 1947, The Gods of Strangers is about migration, family, identity and loss – and revolves around two women, now living far from the Europe of their birth. Assunta is Italian, in her fifties and running a boarding house. She is vibrant, candid, earthy, and – since her life savings were robbed from under her olive tree – suspicious of the world.

Vasiliki, her Greek friend, is the same age, and runs a grocery in the main street. When Assunta’s newest lodger, Vito Sponza arrives, he is no god, but certainly in disguise. Vasiliki also has an unexpected visitor, Anna, a woman from her village, who makes a claim on her son, Yianni, that threatens to wreck her world.

Based on local histories and family stories, Carapetis has created an exuberant portrait of post WW II migration in Australia. Mediterranean culture is proudly recalled and celebrated, but there is also the casual racism, social injustice and the struggle to find work to support families, either here or waiting to join them.

In this State Theatre co-production with Country Arts SA, designer Victoria Lamb creates a street front and interiors using movable slatted window frames and doors which are sympathetically lit by Gavin Norris. The action is accompanied by Hilary Kleinig’s excellent cello score and plaintive morsels of Vissi d’arte from Puccini’s Tosca.

Director Geordie Brookman has a large and turbulent narrative to manage and at times it becomes unwieldy and over-wrought. But this is heartfelt and expressive theatre, exploring a largely unexamined local history which the enthusiastic reception from the opening night audience suggests is long overdue.

It is exhilarating to hear the actors speak in Greek and Italian (with surtitles) and it invigorates the performances. Dina Panozzo captures both sensuality and determination in Assunta, Deborah Galanos the resolve, and devotion to her son, in Vasiliki.

Eugenia Fragos is memorable as the betrayed and isolated Anna and Philippos Ziakas’ Yianni is the dutiful son whose life changes with a knock on the door. Elizabeth Hay as Agnes, the unworldly Australian teacher, shows how the transforming European influences filtered into the lives of many in the 1950s and 60s.

And Renato Musolino is outstanding as Vito. His role morphs convincingly through many revelations and his scenes with Dina Panozzo (especially the jacket episode) and Elizabeth Hay are powerfully managed. They make the people behind these characters less like strangers than before.

Published in edited form as “Revisiting the foreign country of the past,” The Australian, November 19, p.14.

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