Looming the Memory
nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
August 25, 2009
Actor and writer Thomas Papathanassiou's autobiographical solo performance Looming the Memory is about a man who feels he has his heart in two places. Papathanassiou's parents emigrated from Greece to Australia. At a critical young age, perhaps when he was two or three, he spends more than a year being raised by his grandparents in the small village his own parents grew up in. During this time, he becomes so immersed in the culture and life of the village that by the time his parents return for him, he has forgotten who they are, or that he has any other home.
Years later, as a young man, he spends a few months back in the Greek village, and this time investigates old stories about his family, and uncovers the mystery behind a rift between his father and uncle, a story that it seems most of the family does not want him to know.
The style of this performance feels more like a ritual than a traditional monologue—a story that is relived rather than told. At the beginning of the piece, Papathanassiou unfurls a rug that his grandmother wove and performs around it, the only object on an otherwise bare stage. He is in a simple t-shirt and pants with bare feet, reminding me of a performer in rehearsal attire. All of the characters of the piece are fully embodied by Papathanassiou, a versatile and skilled performer, and the changes of character are usually signaled by a moment of transformation.
The telling of this story feels like a truly intimate experience for Papathanassiou. It can be a great challenge to establish and maintain such a state in front of an audience. But unfortunately the piece was sometimes so personal a journey for him, that I had trouble coming along. There are so many shifts in character, some of them consisting of momentary flashes when a character we've met returns for a single line, as well as changes in tense from Papathanassiou being there, to his being told a story by his grandmother sitting at her loom, to his being in front of us, that I lost the thread of the story a number of times.
His embodiment of the people he met in the village is passionate and large, but it is frustrating when you can't place the importance of what they are revealing to him. Often characters are talking to him about other people, but there are a lot of names and nicknames to track. When he finally gets to the bottom of the event that created the rift in his father's family, I knew some of the elements involved—a goat, a curse, a bowl of water—but could not tell you what the story of that event ended up being.
I would not want Papathanassiou's passionate embodiment of these characters to be lost, but I wish that he, and director John Saunders, had found more moments to signpost where we were in the story, and better place the exchanges that are being remembered in a context.
Papathanassiou is a compelling performer even when he is simply telling the story directly to us. Those moments ground the narrative by being clear about where and when he is, as well as what he felt about things, and I wish the piece had more of them.
Looming the Memory is an impressive, bravura conjuration of characters, but I wish it had also been as clear and engaging an act of storytelling as it is of story showing.