It is the one-woman theatrical show that captivated audiences in Athens following its debut in the summer of 2016 at the progressive theatre, To Treno sto Rouf. Women of Passion, Women of Greece is based on three dynamic women: Maria Callas, Melina Mercouri, and the mythological legend Medea. Their talent, strength, fiery personas, and above all Greek passion come alive on stage, reminding us how these women became female legends of Greece.

Their stories are woven together by Athenian dramatist and writer Eugenia Arsenis, to create a dramatic and thoroughly immersive piece of theatre, leading to the production’s first international debut in Australia.

The tragic Medea and the two contemporary Greek priestesses, Callas and Mercouri, are legends of art and life, whose stories are different but who share the same temperament and values of the Greek spirit, with a passion for their craft, for justice, freedom, and democracy.

Maria Callas, the internationally celebrated opera diva, devoted her life to music and let her fate be sealed by a fatal romance. In the opening scene of the play she says, “Do you believe in legends? I was trapped in one … I was born Greek and that meant passion, self-destruction, and glory all at the same time.”

Medea, the tragic figure of ancient Greek drama, was blinded by her deep love for her husband and murdered her children. Melina Mercouri, a beloved Greek actress, singer, and revered politician, starred in the most well-known international films – Never on Sunday and Phaedra – fought for culture and democracy, and was full of zeal and gusto. Her character in the play says, “I love to live, I will let time destroy me and I will enjoy every moment.”

The three embark on an imaginary train voyage and the play’s success is greatly weighted by the power of the script and striking one-woman performance, which portrays the frailties of being human in love and loss, through a rolling narrative of these three women.

Behind it all sits another trio of modern Greek women. The play’s writer, Eugenia Arsenis, director Tatiana Ligari, and the actress playing all three roles, Evelina Arapidi. The collaboration has seen this 60-minute piece of theatre performed in English and run for two consecutive seasons in Athens to international visitors, a long list of foreign ambassadors, and attended by native Greeks including the President of the Hellenic Republic Prokopis Pavlopoulos.

It began when director Tatiana approached Eugenia to write a dramatic play about Mercouri, Callas, and several heroines from Greek drama. Eugenia ran with the idea before finally deciding Medea would be the third and final character. She says, “I wanted to find a character that would not only link Callas and Melina (Mercouri), but one that would have a more profound connection to them. Medea was a woman full of passion, courage, and vulnerability and her dramatic character had been performed by both Melina and Callas.”

Eugenia was able to draw from her own personal memories and family accounts of Melina Mercouri, who was a family friend and close to her aunt the actress Kitty Arsenis. Following an intensive three-month process of pouring over rare documents and letters, Eugenia produced an intense script filled with drama and the complexities of the three characters, but admits that much of the overall script is a work of fiction.

“When working on real-life characters, you need to balance some facts about their lives and words they would have said with your own thoughts about life. It is part of your craft to develop your work in such a way that even you as the writer forget which are your words and which belong to the character. A great part of the play is fictional and through their voices I express very personal thoughts, beliefs, and worries about society and the world”.

Although fact and fiction overlap throughout the play, director Tatiana says the stories of Callas, Mercouri, and Medea are still relevant today.

“Human nature regardless of race, place, and time are inextricably linked to the issues highlighted in the show. The impasse of a passionate love, engagement with politics, struggles for freedom, and love for art are universal and timeless themes. People throughout the course of history ultimately have many similarities, repeat the same actions, the same mistakes and the same miracles and our three heroines are typical examples.”

Modern Greek women of the theatre; actor Evelina Arapidi, director Tatiana Ligari, and writer Eugenia Arsenis. Photo: Why Athens

The greatest artistic challenge was faced by actor Evelina Arapidi, who delivers an hour of uninterrupted dialogue. She is perfectly cast; moving seamlessly between the monologues of these larger than life characters, by the simple action of changing a headdress. She reignites our love for them portraying the histrionic and devastating Callas and the supremely confident Mercouri, capturing their energy and vocal nuances flawlessly, just as many of us remember them.

Evelina is also perfectly poised in delivering their sometimes broken spirit that often led to their self-destruction and heightened emotions of loss and pain, something that continues to be a work in progress for the actress. “After one and a half years performing this play, I still feel I’m rehearsing, discovering, and learning from these great women. But still, approaching any role is always a deep dive into my true self. I always need to find my own truth in order to be honest.”

Women of Passion, Women of Greece will play in Adelaide on Friday 21 April at Star Theatres and in Sydney on Sunday 23 April at the Factory Theatre. The show is presented by the 35th Greek Festival of Sydney in association with Why Athens and the Greek Orthodox Community of South Australia.

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