I have an 11-year-old boy, and it’s next to impossible to imagine him running away from home to sell counterfeit whiskey on the streets of Cairo. But that’s what George Catsi’s father did*, and the fantastical tale is one of many in Catsi’s one-man show, Am I Who I Say I Am? Eleven-year-old Emmanuel would ply customers with a small sampler, and once they agreed to buy his wares he’d pull out a bottle of “whiskey” he’d prepared earlier: but it wasn’t whiskey, it was tea. And then he’d run. Emmanuel Katsivelakis was a life-long runner. And a trickster. This small story early in the show is just a short vignette, but it’s important in setting up the themes of Catsi’s father’s life: a chronic tendency to desert family, and a sucession of ever-more elaborate business scams.
It can’t have made for an easy childhood for Catsi, but it does make for a great story. And a great show. It’s family memoir by a performer who is part serious dramatist, part hilarious stand-up comedian, a story about growing up with a mostly absent Greek father who is always spinning epic stories.
It’s also a show that taps into some of the great dramatic themes of Greek drama: sea voyages, battles with monsters, betrayed wives and lost and abandoned children. Like a less-heroic Jason, Emmanuel was just 16 and back living with his family in Alexandria, Egypt, when his mother marched him down to the docks and signed him up to the merchant navy. A few years later he landed up in LA, where he convinced his restaurant employers he was French and seduced Catsi’s mother.
The couple moved to Detroit, and then she followed Emmanuel to the new home he seized upon in Sydney, Australia. Sailing to Sydney on one of a number of journeys following his father between the two countries, Catsi, along with his mother and siblings, ended up in lockdown in their cabin when a partying Parramatta league team embarked on a violent, days-long rampage (there’s your giant sea monsters). And once settled in Australia, it becomes clear there’s been a great Medea-like betrayal, as Emmanuel leaves Catsi’s mother for another woman.
Those are the bare bones, the eternal, mythological nature of the stories. But it’s the details – a family fancy dress party where his father dresses as an Indian chief and invites his lover to come dressed as his squaw, a little boy’s bewildering/thrilling ride in a police car in Detroit – that make the story new again. It’s shocking, appalling, but it’s all leavened with moments of humour and even affection. There’s a particularly hilarious scene where the grown-up Catsi, by this time working in a special needs home, tries to take control of a minibus full of his clients that is hurtling down a main street of Cooma.
Catsi doesn’t make any excuses for Emmanuel Katsivelakis (the evolving surname is an entire subplot), but he does show us both the comedy and the tragedy of his life. And in the end, after spending an hour with this fascinating, scheming character, we’re seduced a little too. And against our best judgement, we even warm to him a little. That’s the trick of the play. Which makes you think: as another spinner of captivating tales, perhaps Catsi really is his father’s son after all.
*At least, that’s what Catsi believes happened. What his father told him happened. But it’s hard to know for sure. His father was, remember, a born trickster.
The most recent season of Am I Who I Say I Am?, at the Petersham Bowling Cub, finished on July 31.