“Georgie, come on. We are going to get a souvlaki.”

“But I wanna watch the puppets mum.”

“Come on. You’ve seen enough. Souvlaki time now.”

“But the puppets, mum.”

Ordinarily, I find the sound of a child crying deeply distressing, but when little George burst into tears and had to be forcibly dragged away from the Karagiozis tent at the most recent Antipodes Festival, I could not smother a sense of relief.

This was because, when asked to perform Karagiozis plays at our community’s premier street festival by the far seeing committee of the GOCMV, I faced a dilemma from the outset. As Karagiozis traditionally belongs to the realm of children, how does one perform for the increasing number of Greek-Australian children who have little Greek and who have not been exposed to the formulaic structure of Karagiozis’ world? It was clear that the classical repertoire, comprising of such stories as “Karagiozis and the Accursed Serpent,” or “Karagiozis the Doctor,” would struggle to find appreciation amidst a youthful Melbournian audience.

One option was to perform plays in English, thus making the plays accessible to all. Although English, marking the confluence of a multiplicity of languages that have contributed to its vocabulary lends itself eminently to endless rhymes, punning and world play, it was felt that it is a language too alien to the genre for use in this regard. Further, my conviction was that the shadow puppets themselves, their movement, and intonation should convey most of the story, even when the audience lacked the fluency to comprehend all of the dialogue.

In this regard, the constant presence of Asian members of our community who faithfully sat through the plays we performed and recorded them, laughing at all the bouts of slapstick, proved ample vindication, as did a visibly delighted Malaysian member of the audience who took in a performance with her children and then came backstage to inform me that our setup reminded her of the wayang tradition of shadow puppetry in her own country. When I pointed out that her tradition is the well-spring whence our Karagiozis sprung, she beamed. Similarly, an elderly Egyptian bystander was moved to tears, remembering through our Karagiozis, the lost Aragoz performances during Ramadan, of his youth. Even in this seemingly obscure artform, there is much to share and to remember.

Eventually, I decided to write a series of plays in Greek reflecting our own reality here in Melbourne, interspersed here and there with the kind of Greeklish that we all use or hear used. I also decided to pitch the play to two levels: that of children but also that of adults who are nostalgic for the Karagiozis of their childhood, and who would be surprised to find him transposed into the twenty-first century. The scripts that ensued had qualities that I believe to be essential to the Melbournian zeitgeist: Firstly, while combining traditional characters from the old Karagiozis set, these characters would have to refer to modernity and especially our own Greek-Australian reality. Secondly, there would have to be much satire and word play, even if this was not readily understood by the younger members of the audience. Thirdly, dialogue would have to be interspersed with songs, preferably famous Greek songs with lyrics suitably adapted to the topic at hand, thus providing an element of humour but also introducing children to the Greek-Australian received musical repertoire. Lastly, Karagiozis would have to preside over a scenario where all are the recipients of benign jibes, but in which good invariably triumphs and the unity of the community is emphasised.

As is fitting, the plays revolved around the Greek Community, and in the first play, Karagiozis and Coronavirus, GOCMV President Bill Papastergiadis, who has his own stylized shadow puppet, and a local prelate, negotiate for arts funding with the ruling Pasha only to be thwarted by the onslaught of Coronvirus, a particularly nasty pest. Prior to Karagiozis, with the help of the President, banishing him and saving the community only to have the local prelate attempt to take the credit, the President attempts to broker a pact with the Pandemic for the carve up of Melbourne into zones of influence.

In “Karagiozis at the Antipodes Festival,” it is announced that the GOCMV is holding a song contest. Karagiozis is determined to obtain the first prize and thus misdirects all of his usual friends, Barba Yiorgos, Stavrakas, Sior Dionysios and Morfonios away from the location of the contest. The running gag here is that although the rules stipulate that all songs sung in the competition must be in Greek, Karagiozis continuously reprises songs that while popular and a mainstay of Greek music, do not have Greek lyrics, such as Kazantzidis “Rampi,” and of course the divine Efi Thodi’s “I love you baby.” Having dispatched his competitors through means nefarious, Karagiozis’ voice is so bad, that the President, willing to do anything to get Karagiozis to stop assaulting his ears, gives up his presidency and bestows it upon him.

In the most recently written play, Karagiozis and the Elections, I decided to meld current events in Greece with our Australian reality. Eva Kaili, the former vice-president of the European Parliament languishes in jail on corruption charges, causing Karagiozis and his side-kick ample concern as they worry that the evil Schäuble Pasha will claw back the European development grants awarded to Karagiozis to set up a fishery on Mount Olympus. They and their friends, thus lament Kaili’s incarceration through the medium of demotic Greek poetry. In the meantime, President Papastergiadis decides to enter the lists in the battle of the European Vice-Presidency, enlisting some of the greatest Greek singers of all time to come up with campaign jingles.

Karagiozis or Karaghiozis is a shadow puppet and fictional character of Greek folklore, originating in the Turkish shadow play Karagöz and Hacivat. Photo: Supplied

One after the other, Vasilis Karras, Dimitris Mitropanos, Lefteris Pandazis, Stratos Dionysiou and of course Alkistis Protopsalti audition for the role, each of them performing garbled versions of some of their greatest hits. This scene is the most challenging, not only because it requires of the performer some decent impressions of Greece’s most euphonious bards, but also because it is inordinately difficult to not collapse laughing at fellow performer and GOCMV drama teach Jeremy Artis’ impression of Vasilis Karras, or colleague Vangelis Stamatiou’s ear-splitting, glass-shattering Alkistis, uncannily identical to the original article.

Eventually, none other than former British PM Boris Johnson announces the successful candidacy of Karagiozis, expressing his solidarity with the Greek hero, given that all politicians are a bunch of Karagiozides. Though he also throws in the return of the Parthenon Marbles, these are confiscated by the local prelate, who claims that since the Parthenon was longest in use as an Orthodox church, its reliefs properly belong to him. An aggrieved President chides the European Vice-President Karagiozis for stealing his position, only to be told that one who has achieved the exalted rank of President could never lower himself to a humble vice-presidency and thus Karagiozis has done him a favour.

Preparing this play, which we performed over and over again on the weekend was taxing, especially the preparation of the Greek singer’s puppets, which no only had to capture their likeness, but also render it in Karagiozis form. Further, it was my conviction that rather than using recorded music, the music used in the scenes should be live in homage to hallowed tradition. Yet scratching out tunes and sound effects on the violin, manipulating puppets and performing the voices of our heroes proved a daunting prospect indeed. Assisting Jeremy Artis, Vangelis Stamatiou and I in this endeavour, the puppetry and everything else, was the indefatigable and multi-talented Ms Vicky Petalas from the Greek Community’s Greek language and culture schools and we were most thrilled to break the fourth wall, or screen and have our puppets venture out in the open in order to sing her a happy birthday on the Saturday of the Festival. Karagiozo-brecht would have been proud.

The brilliance of the Greek Community’s Street Karagiozis at the Antipodes Festival is that it is as relaxed and as informal as the Festival itself, requiring nothing of the viewer. One can take in the whole performance, or merely pass by, take a glance, move on, come back and bring friends. The amount of community luminaries who swung by requesting that they also appear in a future play, with ancillary puppet-likeness have been recorded securely, for later use. But more heart-warming for us was having the children of our community assist us backstage, earn our techniques and parrot our lines when they thought we were not looking, as well as the many second generation Greek-Australian who visibly moved, recounted their own stories of how they were introduced to Karagiozis on trips to Greece and the VHS cassettes their parents still have stashed away. We reassured them that Karagiozis is now a public fixture on the Lonsdale scene.

Long after the final curtain, as I was walking up towards the Love Lonsdale Stage in order to play Epirotic music with the aptly named “Epirotiki Kompania,” I was accosted by someone who yelled out exuberantly: “Hey Karagiozi!” In the ordinary course of neohellenic events, this constitutes a slur and yet the smile that crept onto my face could not be effaced for hours afterwards. Thanks to the GOCMV, I consider it a badge of honour. Ε ρε γλέντια!