The Princess Goes to War, a delightful production staged by Eclipses Theater Group, written and directed by Ioanna Katsarou, played its run at the Hellenic Cultural Center from November 29th-December 7th. Based loosely on a folktale from Northern Greece, it is a modern-day fairytale with a strong female protagonist, who like Anna in Frozen, flips the stereotypical female role of the sleeping princess waiting for the knight-in-shining-armor and becomes the real hero by saving herself and her kingdom. It is as much an anti-war statement piece as a feminist fairytale. It is also partly a musical that featured unique songs such as “Craft Your Own Fairytale” with lyrics in Greek such as “I free the imprisoned butterfly from its glass container to flutter its velvet wings” and “From inside your fairy tale find your forgotten secret path/Tell again and find again your little song.” It is a tale that ferrets out the latent independence and inner power that is locked up in traditional princesses through the vehicle of the imagination. As such it holds much power just as Bruno Bettelheim argued in The Uses of Enchantment. It is also partly a fable that cautions about the horrors of war and that the only way to win a war is to stop it. From the open eyes and wide mouths of the youngsters who crawled out of their seats and shuffled their way to the edge of the stage for a close up view of the action, it was clear that it had struck a chord.
The play plays with the bicultural identity of its audience and even makes fun of itself by interspersing jokes from popular American and Greek media culture and alluding to Suleiman the Magnificent, a successful miniseries on Greek TV, as well as Charley’s Angels. The genie while she has an Italian last name carries a thick American accent.
The story starts with two sisters, Rinio (Ioanna Katsarou) and Rodoula (Elena Paloumbis), as different as night and day: Rinio is the traditional beauty concerned with all the things girls are supposed to find interesting, fashion, make up, cooking while her sister Elena is the tomboy who struts on the stage kicking a soccer ball and making goals. Both princesses cater to the hypochondriacal, pathetic, self-centered king their father who chastises them for bringing water that’s too cold for his taste or for taking too long to turn on the TV (he’s been sitting on the remote control that’s why.) Then, from a sudden news flash in the characteristic high-pitched theme to the ERT News, they receive word that the kingdom is at war. The king gets into a panic and passes out.
The princesses quickly surmise that their country is doomed if left in the hands of their father who has taken refuge in his bed. Rodoula answers the call by garnishing her panoply–a red strainer for a helmet, a ladle for a sword, and a pot cover for a shield. She is determined to go off to war, gather up the country’s army, and fight for victory. On the road to find the army, she has no idea where, Rodoula bumps into Spithas (aka “Sparky”) (Dimitris Bonaros) who turns out to be the lone soldier of the king’s army. He is more interested in the contents of his stomach than in the war and would gladly end the march for some souvlaki or fasolada at the local taverna. His initial encounter with Rodoula is one of ridicule: “Where’s your cooking pot?” he asks her when he sees her weapons. She alternately jabs him for being “sloppy” and undisciplined (he dances the salsa instead of marching to the rhythm of 1,2, 1, 2).
Rodoula and Spithas, notwithstanding their barbs and bickering, embark on a journey to find the war front. They venture into a deep dark wood where they are attacked by a tiger who threatens to devour them. Rodoula, not losing her cool, negotiates with the tiger into letting her free if she is able to answer three of his riddles. Of course, she does, because she actually thinks before she speaks not like the dim-witted, rash Spithas.
(Just in case you like riddles, here they are:
1 Across from you you see me, but touch me you cannot. What am I?
2 From high it falls to the ground but break it cannot. What is it?
3 In spring I bring you pleasure, in summer I bring you shade, in fall I feed you and in winter I warm you. What am I?
In order to check your answer, make a comment at the bottom and we will give you the answer.)
Not only does the female heroine solve the three riddles, but she answers another one to save Spithas from the clutches of the tiger.
In this story, it’s the women that save the men. Yet, Spithas is whiny and spineless to the point where Rodoula has had enough and asks him to go his own way. They have a falling out and at that point when Rodoula is at a low point in the woods, alone, afraid, and not knowing where to go, she stumbles upon a magic lamp under some leaves. The lyric of the song explains the truth behind this: “Just when you don’t know where to go, magic appears as a spark in the dark.”
This unleashes a magic genie, a blonde beauty named Jeannie Mangini with a thick American accent, who grants Rodoula three wishes. It is through the thoughtful working through of these three wishes that Rodoula finds the solution and wins the war. How does she do it exactly?
The answer is atypically a feminine one. During her chance to make three wishes, Rodoula strategizes and asks three questions that would help her gain victory. First, she asks to know who is the enemy; secondly, who are the allies of the country. The genie grants her a vision to see the answers to her questions: a young soldier on the eve of a major battle writing what he thinks might be the last letter to his mother; a camp of lonely, sad soldiers gathered round a campfire blowing out a depressing tune on their harmonica. Before she asks for her third wish, the genie prods her not to rush but to sleep on it and let her subconscience, the deep part of her that knows the answer and the truth to most problems, find the solution. Spithas reenters the scene and they have a reconciliation. Spithas and Rodoula sing a ditty “You and I together” to the melody of the Toy Story “You got a friend in me” and sleep on it. And sure enough, when she wakes shortly later she has the eureka moment: Fasolada!
Fasolada! That is the antidote to war. It is clear that no one wants war, either one side or the other, so why engage in it? Spitha’s constant references to food have stuck to her as fasolada, bean stew, was one dish he kept harping on. The genie provides such massive amounts of fasolada to both sides in the war that the men, famished from hunger, eat so much that they are unable to fight. Anyone who has eaten a bit too many beans can understand–the camp was filthy from flatulence, bloated stomachs, etc. The soldiers had no underwear to go into battle as their dirty underpants had to be washed, the entire military camp spread with lines and lines of laundry and underclothes waiting to dry.
The Greek folk insight is that the root of peace lies in the pit of the stomach. Both camps ate so many beans that instead of fighting they were squatting so the battle became a “kouradomachia” (only Greek can do justice to the idea.) They were too full to fight. Hmmm… now there’s an idea!
Spithas and Rodoula become romantically inclined exchanging lyrics in a song “One kiss is not enough”. Spithas excuses the extramarital kiss by rationalizing that he has a wife outside the woods but not inside (a typical Greek man excuse at that.)
Rodoula then returns to her father and sister in the castle and summarizes what she has learned on her journey. Victory is to stop the war not to win it. No one wants war. Fear is a lie. They propose to make fasolada the national dish. Rodoula resolves that some “major changes” are necessary. She takes on the official scepter of the kingdom and it is assumed she will have to enact laws that stop all wars. The production ends with all characters holding hands and singing something to “peace on earth” “love and understanding to all.”
The weakness of the production is that while engaging for children is overly simplistic for an adult audience. Can the antidote to war be fasolada? The set was a bit boring as well. It needed some more visual and audio pizzazz, possible with a little imagination even for a theater on a limited budget. While the actors were engaging, the fact that there were only three made the production, well, a bit claustrophobic.
But for its strong themes, how to defeat fear, finding the answers deep within yourself, and the power that little girls have within them to change the course of history, The Princess Goes to War should be staged again.