nytheatre.com review by Daniel Kelley
October 11, 2008
The impulse behind the creation of Doruntine is a powerful one. This production marks the first ever collaboration between a theatre company from America—the New York-based Blessed Unrest—and a theatre company from Kosova (the Albanian spelling of Kosovo), Teatri Oda. Additionally, as Kosova has only become independent as a nation as of February 2008, it marks one of the first times audiences here in America are able to experience the culture of this country on its own terms.
Adapted from the novel by Albanian writer Isamli Kadare, the story of Doruntine focuses around the Albanian idea of the Besa—essentially a person's most sacred oath; a promise that can never be broken. The character of Doruntine is the only girl child in a family of 11: nine brothers, her mother, and herself. When Doruntine wants to marry a foreigner, she finds that all her family refuses with the exception of her brother Constantin. Though Constantin pleads, the family is not moved until he offers his besa. He gives his besa that he'll bring back Doruntine whenever his mother wishes him to. With the besa given, Doruntine goes off and is married. Suddenly, however, tragedy strikes, and Constantin is forced to fulfill his besa in a way that is both strange and powerful. Doruntine is a play about finding strength in what an individual is capable of, and having a faith in that power during a time of intense doubt when the powers that be prove unreliable. Needless to say, this is an exceedingly timely story, and one to inspire hope in a time filled with grave fears.
The way the story unfolds onstage is through carefully choreographed and highly stylized theatrical storytelling. There is no set at all, and the actors are clothed very simply—plain colors, either black or white, tastefully put together by Anna-Alisa Belous. The story is told through the bodies and voices of the actors. The ensemble itself is made up actors from both Blessed Unrest and Teatri Oda. The two central characters of Constantin and Doruntine are each played by two actors, one from each company. The actors from Blessed Unrest speak primarily in English, while the actors from Teatri Oda speak primarily in Albanian.
What is interesting about this mirroring is that, even though they are playing the same characters, the actors playing the Doruntines and the Constantins are obviously playing very different characters. Justin Badger's Constantin is young, insolent, and rakish, while Lirak Celaj's Konstantini is solemn and subdued. Zenzele Cooper's Doruntine is an innocent full of joy, while Njomeza Ibraj's Doruntina is one who has obviously known suffering. The experience of seeing these two different stories played out side by side can be bewildering at first, but comes together beautifully in the last quarter of the play. This last quarter—played mostly between Cooper and Badger, as well as the formidable Laura Wickens as Doruntine's mother—is completely riveting.
While the primary actors from both companies present engaging and fully realized characters, other performers in the company are less successful. In particular, Dave Edson in the crucial role as Doruntine's nameless foreign husband is mannered and alienating. Thematically, Doruntine's husband is a key character—he is the Doubting Thomas in the face of a situation that calls for faith. Additionally, he is the first English speaking character on the stage after an opening spoken completely in Albanian. He is the way in for the English speaking audience members, and his lack of emotional commitment contributed greatly to my initial bewilderment in taking in the mirrored performance.
Overall, however, Doruntine is a wholly theatrical and moving telling of a very relevant and powerful story. It's a window into a culture not often heard from, and is yet another argument for the cultural importance of independent theatre. Both Blessed Unrest and Teatri Oda are independent theatres in their own respective countries, and Doruntine is a testament to the exciting work these kinds of companies are producing.