We die without having learned so many things
Maxim Gorky, Franz Kafka, Kostas Giannidis, Nelly’s, Käthe Kollwitz, Lorca, Max Ernst, André Breton, Paul Eluard, Salvador Dali, Hans Christian Andersen's feminine alter ego, Phaedra and Hippolytus, Alcestis and Admetus, Narcissus. Also, some anonymous heroes: harlequins; a she-wolf; an angel that looks like Yves Saint Laurent; a duck; an alien; a deaf woman who does not want to find her voice; one of the seven dwarfs; the couples of Feng & Shui and I & Q; the hint of the La Brea Woman; and other creatures that cannot tolerate the embrace of realism’s prosiness. And there are a few – very few – earthly figures as well who stand awkwardly opposite to the former, not knowing how to react. All of them dwell in Elena Penga’s universe and their enumeration already gives a preliminary idea about her play-writing.
Born in Salonika, the most “Balkan” and, perhaps traditionally, the most “multicultural” city in Greece; educated in both US coasts; well-travelled; “an Athenian by choice” for the past few years; with an imagination that embraces the entire world; concerned with political and social, but foremost artistic issues, the inquisitive Elena Penga used all of these attributes to good advantage. Everything was transmuted by her volition to be Greek and at the same time Balkan, European and American – a true cosmopolitan.
This denial of adopting a single identity by the playwright is reflected directly in her drama: the linear development is rejected; psychological analyses and sociological explanations are indifferent; realism becomes tolerable only to serve – paraphrasing Guevara – the impossible. Even the terms of the theatrical play itself become restrictive; the recourse to other forms of art is therefore imperative.
Elena Penga’s plays could be divided into two large categories: those who owe their inception to their given “ascendants” and the more ‘freely’ inspired plays.
In the first category belong plays based on: real people [such as Kostas Giannidis (Waltz Excitation), Nelly’s (Nelly’s takes her dog out for a walk), and Käthe Kollwitz (Kaethe Kollwitz presents a brief history of modern art)]; actual events [like Dali’s expulsion from the surrealist movement and Lorca's assassination (Don Surrealism)], or the civil war in the Balkans [When the go-go dancers dance, Who are our new friends?]; and earlier fictions [that may be a narrative (The king who listens), a fairy tale (The emperor’s new clothes), a myth (Narcissus), or Ancient Greek tragedies (Phaedra Or Alcestis Love Stories)].
It is a noteworthy fact that the playwright is not treating her sources merely as a material to be recast, but instead as a tissue that is refracted through the lens system of her dramaturgical microscope. In Narcissus, for instance, it is not the “reflection” that soliloquises, but the “victim” of the reflection. Also in Love Stories, the title defines and at the same time parodies the narrative. And the atrocities of the war in the Balkans are not depicted on stage, but are represented as an echo of the past, as marks of wounds on the people that suffered them.
In the second category belong her plays 3-0-1 Transports, Poisons of the Sea, the Greek alien, Woman and wolf, Gorky’s wife. If in the plays of the first category the playwright dares to take liberties, in this one she seems to set restrictions. But, it just seems: for, whereas she borrows signs from the semeiology of the “upper reality”; terrestrial, seemingly, people who live their seemingly normal life, she does not allow, almost nowhere, Cratylism and their significance, since they are equalized by surrealistic mines. The 3-0-1 Transports, for instance, starts with the change of residence of the widow father to his daughter’s place and finishes with the block of flats rocketed in infinity; in the Woman and wolf, the wife abandons her marriage to become a wolf, etc.
More issues examined by the playwright are love (usually carnivorous love); the art (as a conviction that it can save the world); the war as the motive power that changes people’s lives; the relationships (almost all the time in doubt). And there are also the motifs that come back: the fragility of the personal identity in a large city; the hometown as a “question” of this identity; the reminiscences from childhood and young age; the relation of the human being with the animal kingdom. The way she approaches these questions and motifs reveals the feminine identity of the playwright; but this is not a surprise. Women’s Studies were “on their top” in the U. S. A., in the ‘90’s, when Penga used to live there.
The playwright has been influenced by different aspects of postmodernism, pop culture, her readings; her personal experiences from the “exaggerative” U.S.A. of the ‘90’s; her Balkan friends; her loves and preferences, her emotions; all those things that according to Penga make her inspiration mechanism work. What interests more the playwright in relation to the form of her works is the “foreground”, the characters and the development of the facts “at this particular moment”. Anything else is the background; kaleidoscopic evolution; fragmentation; incessant images; the distraction of thought; the invasion of the surrealistic element even at the most ‘feasible’ moment of the play; the multimedia use; the interaction with the other arts; the variety of the types; the seeking; what is mentioned above are particularly used in her plays and look like constructions or ‘brain toys’. Realism is the ‘weak link’; the removal from it is an inevitable, stubborn choice. It seems like an imaginary situation imposed from “above” that makes any realistic prospect “evaporate”, despite – in a number of cases – the “assurances” of the contrary of the first scenes of the play.
There is no raison to “look” for second, third or any further levels in Penga. For, if we do so, we will lose sincerity; the “openness” of the first level. It seems she declares: “I mean every word I write”. In her plays, motion is given by the centripetal force; this is why they have something juvenile; as if they gather the questions about the world phenomena formulated by a company of students drinking Diet Coke.... However, the playwright, being an adult, refuses to give answers. The conclusions to draw are left to the discretion of whom it may concern.
Her characters do not keep anything for themselves; they say unhesitatingly whatever they feel or think, no matter how extravagant it may sound. You do not have to analyse them, to “psychologise” them; neither them nor their actions; there is no need to guess absolutely nothing on their account. Even keys are not needed, for all their doors are wide-opened; all the information is there, present, unveiled, and evident. They are characters that “carry” not “bring”; that “touch” without “raise” an issue. The alive characters refuse to decay and the dead ones are unequivocally dead, with no nostalgia of life; they are not exactly ghosts, but simple visitors of the Above World. And all of them – alive or not, “named” and unnamed – bear something from the next door “strange man”; they are made of matter and air. They often quote the ancestral farmlands even to reject it. It is certain they cannot easily cut off their roots; and perhaps the whole earth cannot hold them anymore. Almost all of them make allusions to “somewhere else”; they are here, but they come from somewhere else and they would like to be somewhere else. Even out of their body, since, for some of them, their nature seems to be very conventional. Nor their existence is enough. For instance, in the Woman and wolf, even the angel wants to be a wolf. In any case, the unknown raises their interest. But, in the end, they remain lords of themselves. Nevertheless, her characters are all these things together. It is not easy to call them heroes. Not non-heroes. Not anti heroes. They are rather “creatures” of Elena Penga.
Penga’s plays take place “neither here nor there” or “here and there”, in Chania and Vienna, in the Macedonian small town and in Manhattan (it is incredibly big the number of the cities referred in her plays). The public space dominates – even when it is about a private place; it is regarded as a “more private” corner of the public space. Therefore, it is given the impression of temporariness in the space. The characters were in another place (in China or on another planet) or they wish to be somewhere else (in Tirana or in the ‘Green’) or everywhere at the same time, as if they left from somewhere, but even they are “here”, they do not stay forever: the whole world is concentric circles. The characters of her plays often live in metropolis (where “there is gathered all the human biography”), fascinated or disappointed by the anonymity it is offered to them, they move – in completely personal rhythms - in the cities; symbols of the modern world; in the densely populated New York or in the vast Los Angeles. However, Penga is not carried away: it is not about the hotshot Beverly Hills, but for the inaccessible (during the ‘90’s) Down Town; nor the glamorous Hollywood, but for the alternative Silver Lake; it is not for the established Sunset Boulevard, but for the revolutionary Sunset Junction.
Contrary to the space, the time seems to be specific: it is about any now; the consciously elusive now in its total and constant temporariness; in its unity and philosophical expansion. Indeed, even when time is detached from its realistic measurement and the characters cease like a pendulum; as they are persons who have two home towns in time, but they find relief in now, “they feel comfortable” for the time being, of course. For this reason it is given the impression that her characters do not belong to the (countable) time, but in the duration of the play. At the right time, “they will do what they have to do”, but without being distracted or without taking advantage of it. Even the “dead” characters came and lived for a while, for as long the play lasted. There is “yesterday” as a reminiscence, often as a burden, whereas tomorrow – nobody is interested in knowing it. Perhaps, because “time hurts”.
*It’s a line of Optasia in Waltz Excitation of Elena Penga