By James Bartholomew
When you see any show at this year’s United Solo Theatre Festival, the first lines you hear won’t come from the performers themselves. Instead, they’ll be delivered by one of United Solo’s cheerful representatives, who will proudly explain that the ten-week event is “the largest solo theatre festival in the world, featuring over 120 unique productions from six different continents.” When you see enough of the festival’s eclectic offerings, you can just about recite the introduction along with them.
Strong diversity is a hallmark of any great lineup, but United Solo’s numbers are downright enviable. And that kind of diversity isn’t about optics, either. United Solo is eager to remind us of its impressive global pedigree because that diversity is a gift in and of itself.
The founders of United Solo understand that when we engage with people and ideas outside of our self-constructed, homogeneous bubbles, we gain crucial insight into the world around us and into ourselves. After all, there are no greater enemies to creativity than normalcy and equilibrium.
Good theatre is one thing, but theatre that’s exciting, fresh, and represents a viewpoint wildly different from your own – that’s theatre worth leaving the house for. With that in mind, I want to share two productions from this year’s United Solo, both of which have been reviewed by All About Solo. They are both excellent pieces in their own right, all the more praiseworthy because of the fascinating insights their unique perspectives bring.
“The Magic of Too Late,” written and performed by Eleni Kourti, is a poetic narrative about acceptance, nationality, and privilege. Kourti describes the “labors” foreign-born actors must endure to be accepted in the entertainment industry. Playing an American casting agent, Kourti commands a Greek actress to renounce her former language and culture, hang it from the gallows, and relearn the art of speech in a more “conventional” way.
In an era of filmmaking when being different is risky, actors with anything other than the so-called “Northern Standard” way of speaking are deemed liabilities. “The Magic of Too Late” sheds light on the ethnic typecasting and borderline xenophobic tendencies at the heart of the media we consume. It’s a novel perspective, and one that Americans need to hear.
Also coming from the Mediterranean is the tragic story of sacrifice and martyrdom told in “The Farewell.” Set during the Cyprus Emergency of the 1950s, the play centers on the final hours of Greek Cypriot Grigoris Afxentiou, an insurgent freedom fighter who strove to liberate his native Cyprus from British colonial rule. Based on the poetry of Yannis Ritsos, “The Farewell” sees performer Phyto Stratis as Afxentiou, as he comes to terms with his inevitable death at the hands of British soldiers, who, after ten hours of an intense stalemate, resolve to burn Afxentiou alive in his mountain hideout.
The fight for Cypriot independence is hardly ever mentioned in history classes in America. And yet, “The Farewell” illuminates the emotional core of this tragic struggle better than any textbook can. The prosperity of countries like the U.S. and the U.K. is owed in no small part to the suffering of the marginalized. Later this month, the British High Court of Justice will hear allegations of the torture of thirty-four elderly Greek Cypriots at the hands of British soldiers during the island nation’s fight for independence. It is a major trial with clear international ramifications. But without a suitable historical primer such as the one found in “The Farewell,” Americans will scarcely understand the proceedings.
Theatre has always been a medium of exploration, activism and history. Plays like “The Magic of Too Late” and “The Farewell” show us worlds completely different from our own, and ask us to empathize with situations we may never have considered. Whether those situations are about artistic and linguistic discrimination or national sacrifice and heroics, we owe it to ourselves to hear stories rarely told and learn histories not explicitly taught to us.
If you plan to attend any of the wonderful performances at this year’s United Solo Theatre Festival, I implore you to take advantage of its international listings, and to seek out shows that are unfamiliar and exotic. With six continents worth of theatre to sift through, I’m loving every second of it.
United Solo Theatre Festival
Over 120 unique productions from six continents
Up to 5 shows daily
Sept. 13 – Nov. 18, 2018
Photo Selection: courtesy of United Solo (Eleni Kourti in “Magic of Too Late,” and Phyto Stratis in “The Farewell”)
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.