Misha and family watch lelo in Shukhuti

President Saakashvili joins a crowd in the middle of a Shukhuti street where the ancient game of lelo is about to begin; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Crowd gathers in the middle of the street for the start of lelo; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Mikheil Saakashvili, the President of Georgia, watched the start of the lelo game with his wife, younger son, and government members. About 300 people played the ancient game, and hundreds of people watched.

I had been waiting by the stage, for about 45 minutes, in order to photograph Misha, but then the crowd began to gather in the street for the start of lelo, so I gave up on the idea of photographing Georgia’s president. Instead, I climbed a ladder to the roof of the bus stop, where I was confident I could get an overview of the start of the game. To my surprise, Misha did not address the crowd from the stage. He walked into the middle of the crowd in the middle of the street.

Earlier a member of the president’s security team had approached me. Nini Chakvetadze translated and I learned that the plain-clothed guard did not want me to photograph the convoy of vehicles that was going to transport Saakashvili. I said OK and then asked if I could photograph the President. The guard said, yes. So I assured the guard I was far more interested in photographing the President than some cars with heavily tinted windows.

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Arriving in Shukhuti for Easter (and lelo)

Mosqia Gocha, mayor of Shukhuti, and Father Saba, priest at St. George's church in Shukhuti, at the village's bus stop on the main road between Tbilisi and Batumi; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Easter service at St. George's Church in Shukhuti; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Nini Chakvetadze, one of our Georgian “daughters,” and I took a marshrutka  (minibus) to Shukhuti, which is a village of about 2,000 people in the western region of Guria in Western Georgia. We traveled 5 hours from Tbilisi in order to create a multimedia story about the ancient game of lelo, which means “goal” or “try” in Georgian, but is also called Lelo Burti, which means “field ball” in Georgian. Lelo only occurs in this particular village in Georgia and is only played on Orthodox Easter.

Upon arrival, we asked the first people we saw about a place to stay for two nights. We were kindly directed to Father Saba, standing nearby, who immediately took charge. He called one of his “soul daughters” and “soul sons,” Pavle Oragvelidze and his wife Lile, who graciously agreed to host us. I understand that a “soul child” is a member of a church with whom a priest has a special relationship; soul daughters and sons only confess to a particular priest. Father Saba accompanied us to Pavle and Lile’s  home, where he asked if we’d like some vodka (no, thank you). Then Pavle and Lile asked if we were hungry and if we’d like some wine (yes, and yes, please). Finally, Father Saba explained that we would be the guests of the village and that no one would accept any payment for our food or accommodation. Then he left us because Father Saba plays a very important role in the community, especially conducting Easter services and preparing for lelo.

In the evening, we attended Father Saba’s church, St. George’s, for Orthodox Easter.

A great play made better by Director Nini Chakvetadze

Nino Burduli plays Virginia, and Salome Maisashvili plays Matilde in The Clean House; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

The Clean House is a great play. It won the 2004 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, which is awarded annually to the best English-language play written by a woman, and it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Susanna Melo and I enjoyed reading the play before we saw the performance.

But the director, Nini Chakvetadze, one of our Tbilisi “daughters,” along with her actors, transformed the words into an even funnier, more whimsical, more believable experience. The play was performed in a small theater, with an audience of about 50 people, facing a relatively large rectangular stage. Around the stage, a series of about 10 light bulbs hung from the ceiling. Every time an actor “arrived,” (s)he pulled a string to turn on a light, and when (s)he left, the light was turned off. This simple but clever signal also refocused the audience’s attention to different parts of the stage. I also enjoyed the way Nini used some different sized white boxes to represent furniture, which actors would move around when “cleaning” the house. Sometimes the two larger boxes represented separate rooms in a home. Actors would enter the side of a box and close the “room’s door.”

The Clean House revolves around Matilde, a Brazilian cleaning woman who doesn’t like to clean but loves to create jokes. Salome Maisashvili brought a lot of energy to her role, and her body language brought the romantic comedy to life. In the opening scene, she tells a sexually charged joke in Portuguese. During an early rehearsal, Susanna Melo, a native Portuguese speaker, had provided a single language lesson. During the performance, Salome told the joke with gusto and without an accent.

Eka Chkheidze played the challenging role of Lane, a doctor who hired the maid to clean her house. Eka actually made it seem possible that Lane, an intelligent woman, could discover her husband having an affair with an older woman suffering from breast cancer, named Ana, and briefly afterwards could bring this “other woman” to her home and care for Ana.

Ana was played by Darejan Khachidze, who also acts in a convincing manner. Ana not only falls in love, but she bonds immediately with Matilde, the maid, and Ana later asks Matilde to kill her by telling her “the perfect joke.” Indeed, Ana hears the joke and dies laughing.

Nino Burduli played Virgina, Lane’s sister, who is an obsessive cleaner. In my mind, Nino was the funniest actor because of her exaggerated facial expressions.

I hope you have a chance to see The Clean House and to see any play directed by Nini Chakvetadze.

Salome Maisashvili plays Matilde, and Darejan Khachidze plays Ana in The Clean House; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Eka Chkheidze plays Lane, and Salome Maisashvili plays Matilde, in The Clean House; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

Our four “daughters” transform Keith into a true Svan

Tamuna, Nini, Keith, Nana, and Mari

“This is the bus stop where I met Nini”

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

It became a memorable event. Something special. But it began in the most ordinary fashion. Susanna needed to go someplace unfamiliar and she needed to know which bus or mini-bus she should take. She looked around for a young person to ask, because young people are more likely to speak English. She ended up asking a woman named Nini, who speaks English quite well AND who knows the bus routes quite well—a very valuable resource. Susanna’s bus would arrive in 1-2 minutes. But in that brief period of time, Nini learned that Susanna is from Brazil; Susanna learned that Nini is a theater director. Nini’s directing “The Clean House,” by Sarah Ruhl, which has a character who speaks Portuguese, but no one in Tbilisi speaks Portuguese. Susanna to the rescue! And it’s Nini’s birthday!

Last night Susanna coached Salome how to pronounce the Portuguese-language part of the dialogue. But first, Susanna had to correct the problems with the translation. Nini is listening on the left; Salome is practicing on the right.

A good dive

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

A good dive has cheap beer and garlic fries. A good dive has no sign indicating its location; you must go downstairs to enter; people either know about it, or not. A good dive is always full of young people smoking cigarettes, but, hopefully, the room is ventilated. A good dive has waitresses who do NOT tell you their names or try to be your friend, unless you’re a regular; and then they allow you to kiss them on the cheek. A good dive has recorded music mixed with background chatter from all directions. A good dive has a few 50-watt bulbs, donated signs for its walls, and tables-and-chairs from who-knows-where. Nini and Salome were kind enough to lead us to their favorite Tbilisi dive.