Marko the Prince
nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
June 25, 2008
We all know—some from the media and popular stereotypes, others from living over there—that the Balkan "powder keg" still nurtures local ethnic conflicts and fiery arguments. Some American theatre-goers might expect a play about the Balkans, written by a playwright born over there, to include all that: passion, war, conflict, overdramatic journeys and reversals. They won't be disappointed by the Immigrants Theatre Project's production of Marko the Prince by Jovanka Bach, who died two years ago after a long battle with cancer.
The show has atmosphere, drama, and a mythic quality mainly induced by a guslar (Herman Petras) playing a one stringed-instrument called—well, of course—the gusla. Directed by Marcy Arlin with attention to details and to the "spirit of the Balkans," the show has a poetic balladesque intensity. However, the main story is contemporary, set in the village of Sabor, in 1992, at the beginning of the Yugoslav Civil War. Serbs and Muslim Bosnians who grew up together are pushed against each other by history and circumstances, with a bit of help from some "wolfish" people.
The playwright attempts to create a parallel between the legendary hero Marko the Prince (who was celebrated in Serbian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian folklore, and viewed as a respected protector and savior of the local population during the period of Ottoman occupation) and the local "hero" Chicha Mitrovich (Aaron Lohr), a charismatic and manly young Serb devoted to his murdered father's memory. Chicha is a sort of Balkan Hamlet (if we are to notice the Shakespearean undertones provided by the writer and the actor). His "Laertes" is Omar, a Muslim childhood friend, now a teacher:
As boys of eight, we intermixed our blood. There in Mali Otok, at the shore, we bound our hands together to make the blood truly one, and walked hand in hand through the waves until the sea cleansed our wounds. We said it had also cleansed our souls and we were reborn together—as brothers. It was I who taught you how to swim, how to ride, who fought the bullies at school and got his nose bloodied—to protect you; who for your birthday—gave you my best horse—a piebald like Sharatz.
Sharatz was Marko the Prince's legendary horse, and the excerpt above is a good example of the way in which the folktale finds its way inside the play, besides the guslar's chants.
Of course, love stories are a must in a ballade, even a contemporary one. Chicha is in love with Boyana (Lanna Joffrey), a delicate schoolteacher, who happens to be the object of passionate affection from Vuk (Hristo Hristov), the Police Chief, a local Iago, who plants false evidence of Omar's father's death in order to set Omar against Chicha. Vuk's comrade, Corni (the energetic and well-grounded Tony Naumovski) is the bully, the one who pulls the trigger.
Nuanced and powerful performances are given by Trezana Beverley in the role of Chicha's mother and Jelena Stupljanin as Omar's sister, Narin, whose love story with California-born Red-Cross volunteer Mike Mitor, Chicha's American cousin, is the only one with a possible happy-ending despite the Romeo & Juliet beginning.
The whole cast is truly dedicated to this production, and we also are to applaud Immigrants Theatre's commitment to exposing American audiences to international and immigrant plays. That being said, I owe a direct honest comment to Jovanka Bach's memory and to the spirit of the Balkans: her play is ambitious and has a great premise, but the scenes lack active dialogue, offer too much exposition and way too often feel cliché and over-over-dramatic. And the mythic Marko the Prince can't save them, I'm afraid.