Greek Siren

Bala Cynwyd’s Lili Bita is a Philly Fringe institution—and so much more.

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It’s 2006. On a tour of the Silk Road, the ancient highway that connects China with points as far west as Rome, the journey is full of Buddhist antiquities, temples and the like.

Under a tent in part of the Gansu province with an ethnic Tibetan majority, yak is served for dinner. There’s music and dancing at a wondrous reception—and Bala Cynwyd’s Lili Bita gratefully responds by introducing her version of Greek tragedy while feted by local dignitaries.

Bala Cynwyd’s Lili Bita.“Like normal, she went from zero to 60,” recalls Bita’s husband, Robert Zaller. “In street clothes, without any preparation, she starts singing Medea, crying and shouting. And suddenly, even the opening of the tent filled with faces of shepherds, peasants and monks.”

Zaller recalls another time, on the island of Paros in the Aegean Sea, when his wife spontaneously rehearsed a monologue while walking along a country road. “[It was] as though she was belting out an aria,” says Zaller.

Peasants and donkeys alike took in this apparently mad woman. “She has a nuclear furnace inside her,” he says.

At the 2001 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe, Bita performed a bilingual version of a revival of Medea. Before the opening performance, she fractured her left kneecap backstage, yet she still dropped to that knee in the ritual-of-birth scene. Cast and all, she completed the run, eliminating that scene. “Talk about the show must go on,” Zaller says.

It has—and will—at Philly Fringe, where she’s been a mainstay for 13 years. Her Sept. 13, 18 and 19 shows at the Rotunda on Walnut Street include a one-act play she’s co-directing with Gerald van Wilgen, and monologues from Lysistrata (with the audience as the chorus), Medea and Electra. She’ll also read a poem from her published 2007 collection Women of Fire and Blood, plus five other “very erotic ones,” concluding with “Credo,” which she’ll dedicate to the audience.

The Medea and Electra monologues will be performed in Greek, but Lysistrata is in English and is a Zaller adaptation. This spring, the couple received a joint honor, the Gemini Award, for collaboration on two of Bita’s poems published in last year’s poetry annual, Philadelphia Poets. Zaller’s translations were printed side by side. “We’re very proud of this because it recognizes our collaboration, and the way our creative lives have been bound up together,” says Bita, who won’t reveal her age. (“No, I’m an actress,” she responds.)

Zaller is a history professor at Drexel University, where he’s working on his 18th book, a critical study of American poet Robinson Jeffers. Meanwhile, his Greek-born spouse’s one-woman shows have brought the legacy of Hellenism to a worldwide audience.

A graduate of both the Greek Conservatory of Music and the Athens School of Drama, Bita holds an M.A. in drama from the University of Miami. She’s published 10 books and chapbooks of poetry, two books of short fiction, a novella, a memoir, two volumes of translation, and several plays. Her work has been translated into English, French, Spanish, German, and Bengali. She also teaches piano lessons at home—and her students perform in the community.

She’s taught or lectured at 50 colleges and universities, including participation this past March in “Women Forward,” a celebration of Women’s History Month at the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a 25th anniversary book fair at Miami Dade College, where she read from her 2005 memoir, Sister of Darkness. As for Women of Fire and Blood, it changed the mythology of Greek heroines. Bita wouldn’t accept their mythology or the words they spoke as handed down by Greek men.

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