Athens, Week One

The hardest part of my trip here was the last leg: dragging my suitcase through the national gardens. My body thought it was 5 am and here were the hot, damp gardens of midday Athens.

We saw Amalia Moutousis’ Hippolytus; she played every character and it was all in Greek. I had copied the chronology of the play into my notebook ahead of time, to help me follow what was going on, but it wasn’t much help. Sometimes the characters’ names were projected onto the wall in Greek; I had fun puzzling over the new alphabet and I was mesmerized by Moutousis’ concentration, her rapid fire interplay of different voices, her cryptic gestures…

We saw Dimitris Papaioannou’s The Great Tamer– yesterday’s obsession with language replaced by movement and dance. The stage was covered in giant black magnetic strips, full of strange holes. The dancers were often nude and moved slowly (to a slowed down Blue Danube waltz.) Scenes bled into each other, dreamlike; people came in and out of the earth; grotesque bodies made up of multiple dancers assembled, collapsed, reassembled. It had the quality of Greek myth; it made me think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Roman, I know, but perhaps apt since it too is a reimagining of Greek myth). Afterward in my apartment I wrote down what I could remember from the show feverishly.

Our first day of re-staging the Greeks was in fact about staging the Greeks. How did the Greeks do it? Professor Cadden described it vividly: Masks, large gestures, competition, song and dance, outside.

6/12 – 6/15
I decided I would read all the extant Greek plays. This was Aeschylus’ week: a week for the old master, the father of tragedy. I read the Eumenides in the park above the Olympic Stadium, having veered off the street during a walk around the neighborhood. I found a quiet dark grove, and while I was reading there it hit me viscerally for the first time: Ancient Greek theater was performed outside. Not those darkened indoor theaters; this terrain, this air, this light.

Martha took us to one of her favorite tavernas before seeing a show, Metropolis, in the Gazi neighborhood. It’s easy to be a vegetarian in Greece; I love the appetizers– fava, cheeses, vegetables, decadent salads. I ate enough to be drowsy in the hot, smoky theater after dinner; in Greek again, but the geometric set, always shifting, was enough to keep me awake. During the talk back after the show I said that I liked the sound effects accompanying the scraping and pounding of long metal rods on the stage; it reminded me of the clamor of battle. The director said that the abstraction of the rods was essential to imagining something like that. A few of the actors, slightly languorous, smoked enough to fill the upper atmosphere of the theater with ghostly fumes.

We were taken on a tour of the Athenian Acropolis and Agora by the extremely talented, knowledgeable, and commanding Sophia Theona. Climbing the Acropolis was the only thing I’d imagined before coming to Greece. At the bottom, I stood in disbelief in the Theater of Dionysus. Every play we read was first performed here, Professor Cadden said. Staggering in the heat, I tried to digest it. I’d already read about 8 plays. All done here. The Acropolis was crowded; not one for crowds, I tried to tell myself that this was like experiencing the festival for Athena that Sophia had just told us about. Then, there was the Parthenon, that seat of Athena, that marvel of creation, which I looked on with eyes aching from the bright midday sunshine. Divine power hurts, I thought.

Later that day I followed Drake, Professor Cadden’s husband, and a few other people to a wine place, where I had deliciously bright white wine and a variety of cheeses from different parts of Greece.

With a fresh uncharted Saturday in front of me I set off for Lycabettus Hill (–well, only after getting my daily coffee). The big hill had been nagging me almost since I arrived. It took me a long time to find the entrance to the upward trail, but I got to see a new residential neighborhood in my confusion. Finally I stumbled on a wooded park with steps leading up. It was 11 am, a wholly inappropriate time for a climb. Heart pounding, out of breath, sweaty, I climbed resolutely, and then was ecstatic as I first saw the city: white, beige, pink, shimmering and flickering in that same midday sun that blinded me the day before on the Acropolis.

In my somewhat delirious ecstasy I thought I finally understood why they brought us to Greece to study and perform Greek theater– something I’d known in theory but could never articulate. This is the land, the terrain, the air; this is what your body feels like here; if you want to act in and understand an Ancient Greek play your body needs to know what Greece feels like. (I should note that our acting classes had been focusing a lot on the body: how it moves, feels, looks, communicates, etc.)

All I could think about was climbing more hills, so I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to climb the Hill of the Muses before sunrise. I wasn’t prepared for the clammy chill of the night air, but I didn’t mind the sensation after experiencing so much heat in the past few days. Predictably, the city was almost empty, and so was the hill, except for one couple sitting on a bench at the bottom. I sat down on some rocks at the edge of the hill and under the purple sky. This is what it takes to be alone here, I thought, eating cherries out of a plastic bag and taking in the spread of the city. I was a bit afraid of being bitten by a bat, but luckily they were flying around a different part of the hill. I watched the city emerge out of that purple darkness, watched the lights go out in big blocks, and watched the arrival of the cloudiest dawn I’d ever seen. I thought about the Prologue of Antigone (the play I’d been assigned to specially study and act) and the choral Parodos: night to dawn in Thebes. Did Sophocles imagine a brooding dawn like this one?

Afterward, as I walked home, I saw a new city. Someone said kalimera to me; police drank coffee near my apartment; I stumbled into bed in my bright room.