“With Over Two Pieces of Luggage”, at the theatre of the Greek Cultural Center in Astoria.
New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
With Over Two Pieces of Luggage, written, directed by, and starring Alexandros Malaos began the winter season at the Greek Cultural Center on October 28. It doesn’t get any better than this. This multimedia play, which, like Neophytos Stratis’ one-time musical presentation in June, Composition Diary I, falls into the category of brilliant new art production by young Cypriots living in America. The run of With Over Two Pieces of Luggage will be over all too soon: the last performance will be on December 11, but judging by the brilliance of this play, Malaos’ visibility as a great artist is just beginning.
What’s it about? Hilarious yet profound, With Over Two Pieces of Luggage is a series of stories that examine the modern immigrant experience in New York, and underlying autobiographical sub-stories. Specific though they are, the stories reveal universal truths.
The perfectly edited, two-act play is comprised of four elements:big screen videos, minimal props, supertitles (sometimes deconstructivist), and audience participation, and three flawless actors: Malaos playing himself, and Evelyn Burnett, and Nikos Karas playing multiple roles. One of Karas’ funniest is as an ATM machine, but that’s a very hard call, since each story in With Over Two Pieces of Luggage is funnier than the last. The play is endlessly entertaining. And so is Mr. Malaos, who took some questions from the GN about his work and about himself.
GN: Some of the topics the play covers are success, love, money, health, and the sense of obligation towards family. But there were others.
AM: Well those are basically the stories covered infused with an air of nostalgia. The worries and concerns are those of success (will I make it?), love (am I going to grow alone in a city of 12 million people?), health (is all this stress going to take a toll on my health in the long run?) and family (how long am I going to have to assure my mum that “it’s going to happen” for me? Was my dad right all along?).
The underlying “sub-stories” are indicators of my past, the foundations and principles that I was brought up on, and how I apply them to an American society.
GN: Big screen videos make the stories even more real. How did you decide on the media you used?
AM: The videos give credibility to the on-stage happenings. It’s not just “Oh look at these amusing stories this kid has come up with.” By getting real people to participate and say their opinions, it’s like a seal of authenticity to the script; real stories, real people, real issues.
The use of the sound queues and voice-overs is just an idea that I always had. I like playing with sound because you cannot see sound. You cannot see it coming. It can come from out of nowhere and it can be anything; a noise, a voice, a melody, an ambiance; or a combination of any. You can have 50 people in a room, and one same sound will take each of them to a different place.
Technology is a reliable acting partner because it is flawlessly accurate and versatile. Technology doesn’t forget its lines, never comes in too late or too soon, and gives you options to play with. If manipulated properly and timed just right, it can open a lot of doors in people’s minds, and bring out the script in unique ways.
GN: Your minimal props are perfectly descriptive.
AM: My improv background, where we take suggestions from the audience and create moments on the spot, taught me that sometimes, when it comes to sets and props, less is more. An elaborate set can take away from the essence of the scene. In improv, I have seen scenes played out on a bare stage with no props other than a chair; but the moments that were created were so strong and powerful because they were so spontaneous and real, that they completely took over and, in a way, the moments became bigger than the stage itself.
GN: Did any other work influence your ideas?
AM: It wasn’t so much other work that influenced my ideas, as much as it was the lack of other work. I’ve been seeing so many productions not only at the Greek Cultural Center but all over Astoria, and there has always been this tendency to “play it safe,” to do something proper, something classic, something that people are familiar with, something that doesn’t require anything too “crazy.” And to me it wasn’t about the risk of doing something different, but the need to do something different. The more we stick with the same presentation patterns, the more we get stuck in these patterns.
When I thought of having three projectors, and setting up big screens and interacting with videos, most people would have told me it’s an unnecessary hassle. Luckily I was surrounded by trusted and technology-savvy friends (Alex Agisilaou-videos and Athan Chilakis-sound effects) who believed in this vision and helped nourish it rather than downplay it.
It’s not just about what technology means to my play, but also to the Greek Cultural Center. Who would have thought 35 years ago, when the GCC was founded, that a space so small and intimate could have such versatility and unique potential? Art can only grow through challenge. Now an artist that comes to see my show, can say “Hmm… This gives me an even better idea.” And he will use my idea and upgrade it to something even more clever and creative in the next play. And then another artist will see that play, and take ideas from there and ramp them up, and so on, and so on… we evolve by competing, not by conforming.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the shows thus far haven’t been that good. Far from it, I find the productions at the GCC to be very professional and of top quality, even better than many off-Broadway productions we see in NYC, and have raised the bar tremendously. I just felt it was time to take it to another different level. Not a better or superior level, just a different level.
GN: How long did it take you to come up with the way you presented your ideas?
AM: I came up with the way of presenting my ideas while I was writing the play. It was written in a way that all the transitions, changes, entrances and exits could blend with the sounds and images. Some ideas I had come up with before I even started writing it. I always wanted to do a play that incorporates voice over narration and audience interaction… I didn’t even know what play that would be; I just knew I wanted to use these elements. By the time I was done writing it, I knew exactly what sound effects, props and video images I needed; some ideas were morphed or altered slightly during rehearsals, but the core remained the same.
GN: When did you get the idea for this production?
AM: I think I had the idea for the play about 3 years ago when I was sitting in my cubicle at work, being bored to death, thinking “I wonder how many other people can identify with my daily grind and sympathize with my plight?” and I started taking small notes on a notepad by the telephone on my desk, and the material just kept growing and growing and I found myself “smuggling” torn up pieces of paper with notes, from my work to my apartment every day.
GN: How old were you when you realized you wanted to be an actor?
AM: I’ve wanted to act as far back as I can remember. It’s not like there was a certain age where I said, “I know what I want to be!” It’s not like I was ever undecided and was searching for my calling. I just always felt that acting was the kind of field where I could fit in, and yet at the same time set myself apart. It always felt like it was “my thing.”
GN: Did anything in your environment bring that desire on?
AM: Television! American sitcoms were huge in Cyprus. Especially in the 80’s. I grew up watching all the classics religiously: Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Charles in Charge, Happy Days, Cheers, The Bob Newhart Show… even shows that had mostly adult humor and political references that I could never understand, like Murphy Brown; I didn’t get most of the jokes, and yet for some reason I would never miss an episode.
My father was also a huge Benny Hill fan. He had tens and tens of videotapes full of Benny Hill episodes that he would record, and we would watch them over and over and never got tired of them.
I grew up with so many different styles of comedy and yet the common undeniable constant was the laughter. Especially back then when most comedies were with a live studio audience, I remember the applause breaking out like fireworks, the crackling laughter from the audience. Occasionally you would get a joke that was a real gem, the kind of joke where people would burst laughing out loud, and it just kept building up louder and louder until it broke into a thundering applause that would fizzle to the sound of the audience trying to catch their breath from the hilarity that just ensued.
I remember being so wowed and fascinated by how one spoken line, one facial expression or one perfectly timed interaction can produce such a raw, spontaneous, explosive human reaction on a mass level. From a very young age I had acquired a certain recognition and appreciation for the power of entertainment. A power which to me always was, and remains, electrifying.
Alex, who has also experienced great commercial success as a principal actor in ads (some made by Emmy award-winning directors), also shares his expertise by teaching theatre workshops for children and teenagers at the Greek Cultural Center and presents the Greek Shadow Theater Company together with Evangelos Alexiou.
To see Alex in ads by EmmyAward-winning directors go to:
To see Alex in another ad go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TDXt22i2Z8
Malaos describes the play’s stories:
1. My day-to-day NY routine, the rat-race that I–and so many others–am desperately trying to get out of and yet am being forced to get sucked into.
2. The whole trip from Cyprus to NY, the stress at the airport and the realization of “What did I leave behind and what am I getting myself into?”
3. The army, and the elaboration on one of my greatest military lessons on the art of pursuit, which ultimately ties into the whole concept of aggressively going for what you want, knowing that the outcome can be just as fantastically overwhelming as it can be bitterly hurtful.
4. The intersection of science and religion, which talks about how worrying about the uncertainty has increased my stress levels, and how church can be more comforting as a memory rather than an actual source of help.
5. Then we have the debate over successful relationships versus successful careers, followed by the constant strain of keeping tabs on your “humble” checking account and dealing with your bank’s curveballs.
6. After a small parenthesis on the power of Greek language and an expression that we forget to say when we get caught up with our own worries, there is a piece about how no matter how many years you are in the US and how pure your intentions are, the American authorities will always view you as an unwelcome suspect, especially if you’re not “one of their own.”
7. Topped off by Deal or No Deal, when the time comes to make the grand final decision about whether or not to stay, while the banker offers temptations to break me down and make me head back.