Here’s looking at religion

English speakers will probably be primarily drawn to the Mistero Buffo solo show, which comes from the US.

Panos Vlahos plays a number of roles in Dario Fo’s satirical work. (photo credit: ALEJANDRO FAJARDO)
Panos Vlahos plays a number of roles in Dario Fo’s satirical work.
(photo credit: ALEJANDRO FAJARDO)
It’s that time of the year again when fans of left-field thespian endeavor can gorge themselves on the rich and diverse pickings to be had at the annual Acre International Fringe Theater Festival. The 38th edition of the country’s preeminent event in the non-mainstream theatrical field will take place at the northern coastal city October 7 to 10. The program takes in eight original local productions, three big-selling shows from abroad and 30 street theater slots, both domestic and foreign, as well as seminars and various symposia.
The foreign contingent includes an intriguing Macedonian-Russian co-production called Shakespeare 4ever, which is based on the Bard’s writings and performed in Macedonian and Russian with some musical seasoning in English. Meanwhile, the Acre faithfuls will get a touch of reality from across the waters, with the award-winning Revolt Athens play, which references Greece’s continuing economic woes.
English speakers will probably be primarily drawn to the Mistero Buffo solo show, which comes from the US. It was written half a century ago by multidisciplinary Italian artistic firebrand Dario Fo, whose many achievements include receiving the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature. The work comprises a series of brief monologues that feed off biblical material. A highly controversial and popular item, it ran widely across Europe, Canada and Latin America. Following a broadcast of the play in Italy, the Vatican dubbed it “the most blasphemous show in the history of television.”
The production that is headed to Acre will be performed by US-based Greek actor Panos Vlahos under the direction of fellow Stateside resident Greek Lyto Triantafyllidou, with the former playing several roles, including a clown by the name of Giullare. Noa Egozi is the producer.
Vlahos says he has been a fan of Fo’s work for some time, and felt it was high time the play was returned to the stage after a lengthy hiatus.
“I have always been a great admirer of Dario Fo. His plays are frequently performed on the Greek theater scene but not Mistero Buffo. It seems that this play is kept a hidden secret. I first saw it performed by some of the most talented Greek actors, five years ago, and I was fascinated. From the very first story I knew that someday I would have to work on this exquisite piece.”
And so it came to pass.
Vlahos says he was intrigued by Fo’s daring, and appreciated the Italian’s desire to shake things up, and to deliver a scathing attack on religious leaders.
“I liked his intention to start with: to provoke and educate the public, to entertain and ‘wake up sleeping minds.’ Religious authorities, historically, have abused their powers to manipulate the public and take advantage of those in need. This is an issue that has always been of great importance to me.”
Presumably, though, putting on such a provocative play could ruffle feathers in certain quarters and produce a powerful backlash. Were the actor or director at all apprehensive about the venture? The latter says he had absolutely no qualms.
“There is something intriguing about how divisive the play has been throughout its history,” Triantafyllidou says, noting the Vatican response.
“Of course this was a different time. I think today, there are very few things that could spark such a reaction. In order for someone to react they have to listen first. I am not really concerned that any religious leaders and institutions will listen to us. Of course, our show is not against faith of any kind. It is against the use of faith as a weapon against the very people it’s supposed to serve.”
For his part, Vlahos feels he and his fellow professionals are duty-bound to push the boat out.
“I believe that the role of theater is not only to entertain but to provoke and criticize those who are seemingly irreproachable. Mistero Buffo does not attack religious faith, but the atrocities that have been committed for centuries in the name of religion.”
Of course, if you are looking to impart a biting message, it can help to couch your ideas in humoristic terms. Just consider the likes of Monty Python or practically any contemporary stand-up comedian, or satirist.
“Comedy is the best tool for anyone who would rather ask questions than dictate answers,” says Triantafyllidou.
“In today’s political climate – in the US at least – comedy shows have proven to be more reliable news sources than the traditional news outlets, and ‘clown’ figures such as Stephen Colbert, John Oliver or Jon Stewart are the ones to point out the absurdity of the current political scene. Theater cannot respond to the rapidity of the news, so we talk through always-current symbols and parables.”
The director says he and Vlahos follow developments on the political front and the way the aforementioned TV personalities and their ilk respond to them.
“Throughout this past year, Panos and I keep adjusting the performance to reflect what has been happening in the sociopolitical sphere.”
For his part, Vlahos feels that humor is clearly the way to make certain points, and that has been the case across the millennia.
“In Ancient Greece the power of comedy was clear. It was a weapon given by the gods to the people in order to challenge authority and those who manipulate the masses. Mistero Buffo attempts the same. It uses laughter as a tool to entertain, educate and wake up the sleeping minds.”
Vlahos certainly has his work cut out for him with this show. In addition to Giullare, he performs an eclectic roster of characters, including the Virgin Mary, a peasant, Death and Christ. The actor says he has to keep his wits about him.
“I do my best to follow the initial intention of Dario Fo when he himself performed Mistero Buffo: ‘The performer should be physically fit and capable to portray the different characters using only his voice and his gestures.’”
Triantafyllidou and Vlahos appear to be hardy characters determined to deliver the goods, come what may. Even so, they would have been forgiven for harboring some misgivings about bringing a work that does not offer too many kind words about some of Christianity’s A-listers to this part of the world. The director says he has “previous experience.”
“Both Panos and I were born in Greece, a place where there the separation between church and state is unclear. For example, I remember in 2000 that thousands of Greek Orthodox clerics and church followers demonstrated in Athens to demand that the government retract its decision to remove religious affiliations from citizens’ identity cards. I understand that Israel is a country very connected with religion as well. I feel that people might connect with the stories of Mistero Buffo in the same way I do. I accept that religion is a very big part of my country’s tradition, but I believe its function in our everyday life should always be an open debate. I hope we will continue this conversation in Israel after our performances.”
Vlahos says he, too, will be perfectly happy to sit down with any members of the Acre audience that may feel the play goes a little too far.
“I am very excited and honored to have this opportunity. I look forward to the performances and the discussions after!” It looks like the Acre International Fringe Theater Festival has lined up an abundance of unorthodox entertainment and will send the patrons home with food for thought.
For tickets and more information: (04) 837-7777 and