Motus’s “Alexis. A Greek Tragedy” at UTR
It’s taken me a couple days to get anything out because my response to Motus‘s Alexis. A Greek Tragedy (at Under the Radar through Jan. 14; tickets $20) was so complex. I think maybe I wanted to like it more than I did, or distrusted my anger and irritation at it, which I suppose says something about its ability to provoke. It’s an accomplished production but one that I found ultimately shallow and vapid and even irresponsible.
A mixture of documentary theater and performance deconstruction, Alexis is mainly concerned with the story of Alexis Grigoropoulos. On Dec. 6, 2008, 15-year-old Grigoropoulos was hanging out with friends in the Exarchia neighborhood of Athens, home to the Polytechnic and the center of Athens’ radical and anarchist community. A group of police officers came by and an exchange took place, the details of which remain somewhat in dispute. But what’s certain is that following the exchange, a short chase took place that ended with one officer firing his gun and Grigoropoulos lying dead on the pavement. Within two hours, the streets were flooded with riotous protests that eventually generated sympathy marches in cities around the globe.
For Motus, the fascination here lies in these real world events’ synergy with Motus’s own exploration of the story of Antigone, which serves as an archetype for the protester: Antigone, the lone woman who opposes her state and risks her life in pursuit of a moral good. Alexis Grigoropoulos, a kid literally left dead in the middle of the street by the trigger-happy cops, becomes a modern day Polynices, Antigone’s brother left to rot on the streets of Thebes (if you don’t recall the story, he was declared a traitor and could not be buried or mourned on pain of death; doing so was Antigone’s act of civil disobedience).
As the show opens, the theater is filled with smoke and large amber floodlights are pointed at the audience from upstage, as actress Silvia Calderoni aggressively throws her upper body up and down, dancing around the stage as rock music churns. We’re in the midst of the chaos of a protest, in other words, watching the individual standing up to…well…something.
From there, the four actors in the show jump back and forth between elements. There’s video shot in Athens, featuring interviews with journalists and friends of Grigoropoulos, and photo slideshows of Exarchia. The video documentation is interspersed with live elements: An exploration of how they staged Polynices’s death pose and Antigone’s mourning-protest, and discussions among the performers about their presentational choices or experiences in Greece. (Alexandra Sarantopoulou, a member of the company, was in Exarchia during the protests/riots.)
I think at heart, what Motus is fascinated in here is thinking about what it takes for a person to risk everything–to take on personal, physical, financial, and legal risk–to protest an injustice. For as collective as a protest is, the company’s focus remains almost myopically on the individual. This becomes problematic and gets lost amidst the larger conversation they seem to want to have about what Grigoropoulos’s death and the subsequent protests mean. Motus seems to want to place them in a broader political context encompassing the devastating effects of the recession on young people around the globe, who face few job prospects, years of government enforced austerity, and less opportunity than previous generations. But as was the case with the riots last in year in England, the exact link between the political-economic situation and the rage you see on the streets is complex and unclear. The opportunism and nihilistic rage that are the salient features of these riots are hard to link to a clear sense of protest.
About halfway through the show, things start to get really troubling, and not in a good way. In one scene, an unintentional small-scale Milgram Experiment unfolds, as the actors encourage members of the audience to get up onstage and mime throwing rocks during a riot, directed towards the house and the audience members who did not join in. The four actors, of course, were the ones in front of the crowd, running further forward toward the seating to pretend to throw their bricks or Molotov cocktails or whatever. The audience volunteers clustered towards the upstage area and sort of egged themselves on, sticking close together behind the actors, with only one or two taking the initiative to really join in and rush all the way downstage.
Un-ironically following this demonstration of herd mentality and it’s relationship to violence that they just successfully staged, in the next scene Sarantopoulou and Calderoni have a conversation about whether they could actually throw a rock and hurt someone during a protest (there is in fact a big brick onstage, provocatively recalling Chekhov’s Gun). The effect makes their effort seem painfully naive, an attempt to locate as a matter of personal choice and political engagement an act they just successfully demonstrated has as at least as much to do with the permissiveness inspired by crowds.
While the show is nominally concerned with Grigoropoulos, in the end his death feels exploited as the raison d’etre for the company’s exploration of the figure of the protester. Abstracted like this–through myth, archetype, and theatrical practice–what we’re really dealing with is the radical chic glamor of the figure without any of the content or context. Don’t forget, these are also protesters (and this is also an example of an object of protest). Grigolopoulos’s story creates a pretext for assuming that the protest actions Motus examines at are justified, something the company doesn’t otherwise seem interested in asking questions about.
The final image of the show, for me, was the most damning. In the final sequence Calderoni arranges for a camera to snap her photo as she runs leaping at the audience. The image, projected on the upstage screen, shows her from behind at the top of the arc, arms outstretched, with the audience seated on risers before her. It’s a celebration of defiant individuality in the face of the passive group. But for me, it quickly recalled the recent Levi’s ad campaign that appropriated the image of the young protester–the ultimate individual–to sell jeans, which was composed almost identically. Motus may be aiming for different ends, but the means are essentially the same: A cheap trade in the aesthetics and glamor of protest, absent any real discussion of the political realities in which the act occurs.