Café Rebetika is an ambitious undertaking: a play about the Greek Blues (rebetika), set in the 1930s, combining cabaret, theatre, music and dance, but it isn’t a musical and the cast are predominantly theatre (rather than musical theatre) trained actors. If anything, Café Rebetika is a drama, and a drama in the truest sense of the word: it is a comedy and a tragedy both, and it’s extremely good.
The play is set in a teke – a hash den – between 1935-1937, and invites you into the rebetes subculture, outcasts in the slums of Athens who created a utopian subculture based on acceptance, and who were responsible for the creation of rebetika music, songs of love, sorrow and drugs. The teke is owned by Stavrakas, played by Tony Nikolakopoulos (Head On, The Wog Boy, Underbelly) and frequented by his surrogate family: Fofo (Amelia Christo), the waitress; Yiorgos (Steven Mouzakis), the dope smoker; Katerina (Katerina Kotsonis), the prostitute; Petraki (Thomas Papathanassiou), the heroine addict; Grigoris (Peter Stafanou), the socialist worker; and Areti (Laura Lattuada), a teacher and Stavrakas’ lover. This band of misfits gather at the teke to escape the hardships and poverty of their lives, mostly by immersing themselves in the music of rebetika. Both Areti and Petraki are refugees from Smyrna (a city in Asia Minor (Turkey) that was burnt to the ground in 1922), struggling to find acceptance. The play focuses on the love story between Stavrakos and Areti and the tragedy that befalls them.
Café Rebetika is a play all about potential. It explores the potential in suffering, in love and tolerance, in politics, and in music. As Stavrakas says of his baglama (an instrument akin to a mandolin) in the second act: “Even as it sits there, it holds the potential for joy, for love, for life itself.” Even amongst violence and incarceration, displacement and death, the potential that music offers is what brings hope.
From the moment you are seated, the music in Café Rebetika is at the fore. Melbourne’s own internationally acclaimed Greek Blues band Rebetiki (comprising Achilles Yiangoulli - the musical director, Argyris Argyropoulos, Takis Dimitriu, Tony Iliou and Paddy Montgomery) casually walk on stage while the audience is still being seated and begin to play, looking as much a part of the set as the hash pipe and mismatched tables and chairs. Their playing is ridiculously good; even to my uninitiated ears, that much is obvious. Soon the cast appears and the music steps up a notch, cueing singing and dancing, and biscuits dished out to the audience (What? You didn’t think there’d be a Greek play without a Greek person offering you food, did you? Shame on you.)
The costume design by Adrienne Chrisholm is simply stunning. Bill Buckley’s set is perfect, with good use of levels. Unfortunately, the space at the Fairfax Theatre is large and, without microphones, the actors struggle to keep the energy levels high, which is vital in a production of this length where meanings (in English and Greek, with surtitles) need to be clearly expressed. The singing is good across the entire cast, but again, the volume is an issue. Peter Stefanou and Laura Lattuada are perhaps the only cast members with enough power to belt out a song without the need for a mike and still maintain the right amount of vitality. Amelia Christo has one of those divine voices that you could listen to for hours and I longed to hear her better. In saying that, she’s a powerhouse in this production, and delivers a flawless performance as the illiterate, earnest, and incredibly endearing Fofo.
Papathanassiou and Nikolakopoulos were the crowd favourites on opening night, receiving rapturous applause from the audience. Papathanassiou brings a groundedness to the unhinged heroine addicted Petraki, invoking such a vulnerable honesty in the emotional closing scenes that few were left unaffected. Nikolakopoulos plays a manga, a tough, James Dean like character who lives by a code of personal integrity no matter the cost. I felt that Nikolakopoulos played to this aspect of the character at the expense of all else, becoming too mysterious and making it difficult to really get a feel for the emotional profile of Stavrakas. Nonetheless, his performance is compelling and filled with strength, which makes the relationship between Stavrakas and Petraki all the more poignant.
Steven Mouzakis (Knowing, Being John Malkovich) is brilliant as the perpetually stoned Yiorgos, and then switches gears to play the high-energy solider, Michalis, in the second act, bringing that important vitality. Peter Stefanou and Katerina Kostonis deliver wonderful, strong performances. Kostonis’ singing voice is deep and affecting and her song at the funeral of Yiorgos is one of the highlights of the evening. The musical highlights abound, though. The opening song of the second act, Drunk and Stoned, is a hoot, and there are some truly toe-tapping numbers throughout.
Café Rebetika is conceived and directed by Stephen Helper, who has 25 years of production credits, and was co-written with cast member Thomas Papanthassiou. This play deserves a large audience. It’s about as original as they come.
Venue: the Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio
Dates: 22 April - 9 May, 2009
Ticket: $30 - $50
Bookings: theartscentre.com.au, 1300 136 166 and ticketmaster outlets