AN ALBANIAN, A SERB, AND THE SOLDIERS: A Review

hb4In an interview with An Albanian, A Serb, and the Soldiers producer/director/actor Vinny Abazi a few weeks ago, the Kosovan artist recalled how people would ask him about the ethnic tension in the former Yugoslavia: “Why do you guys fight? You all look alike anyway!” Abazi consented that, indeed, that it was occasionally hard to distinguish the two groups based upon looks alone. The superficial physical resemblance between Albanians and Serbs makes its way into Abazi’s bold new production. Taking place during a war that pitted the two groups against each other, the lack of great physical distinction plays a pivotal role in the play’s plot: In at least one unflinchingly tense scene, the characters are able to even fool the soldiers by masquerading as the OTHER ethnicity…

An Albanian, A Serb, and the Soldiers begins with an actual 1999 piece of audio from American President Bill Clinton. The soundbyte is taken from a speech where Clinton gives his rationale for going to war in the Balkans . What follows in playwright Ibi Abazi’s darkly comedic drama is a story about how the war hits home for two young men who only wanted to… well, survive. The play gives the audience an important history lesson about Kosovo’s quest for freedom and independence, as well as the difficult path to peace in the former country of Yugoslavia. For its great intentions alone, Honey and Blood Theater’s Ibi and Vinny Abazi deserve great praise for bringing this provocative, fast-moving, and often very funny story, inspired by real-life events, to American audiences.

An Albanian, A Serb, and the Soldiers takes place in the basement of an abandoned office in war-torn Kosovo, which offers some tenuous temporary shelter to the young but somewhat sickly Albanian journalist Toni (played by Albanian-born actor Julian Gjaci), an Albanian.  With only a bottle of warm, mysterious “booze” and the boldly red flag of Albania for sustenance, the diabetic Toni is hiding from the periodic choruses of gunshots eminatating from outside. He’s waiting for the war to end. But Toni is not alone for very long. He is soon joined by the “Serbian” of the plays title– a gruff, brawny former soldier named Dragan (Croatian actor Ivica Marc), who is also a journalist. Needless to say, a two-man battle immediately erupts between this pair of theoretical enemies. The audience gets to watch a bizarre “mating dance” of sorts as Toni and Dragan go from their initial extreme adversity to some sort of delicate “alliance” in their claustrophobic environment. As Helen Thomas famously said, “War makes strange bedfellows.” In this case, we can alter that statement to say “War makes strange BASEMENT-fellows.” Even with their frail truce in effect, this Albanian and this Serb have their fists on speed-dial at all times. Neither one is afraid to occasionally take a jab at the others’ ethnicity. (The word “terrorist” is used, as well as the ultimate insult: “Intellectual!”) Still, the two young men have no choice but to get along– even when, later on, they literally have a gun to their heads.

Those guns to their heads come courtesy of “the Soldiers” of the play’s title, who find their way into Toni and Dragan’s makeshift shelter. The parade of soldiers continuously shift the play’s balance of power and makes for some very tense drama. The first soldier to arrive is Serbian (Serbian-born actor Ivan Kirincic). The second (Vinny Abrazi) is from Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës (UÇK): The Kosovan Liberation Army. In what could have fatal consequence, somehow the two journalists survive the soldiers’ unexpected visits– thanks in part through the unlikely but highly believeable protective quality the pair soon develop towards each other.  In fact, no one gets hurt until the arrival of a third soldier (Montenegro native Izzy Durakovic)– an over-the-top (and perhaps a bit crazy) gunman of undetermined ethnicity. Out of all the characters, Durakovic’s soldier is the most complex– if only because his motivations are far from clear at first. That said, the audience gets a slight clue when he states, “The war is coming to an end. Someone has to be a hero!” Can someone smell wartime opportunism along with the gun powder and testosterone permeating this basement?

All five actors are excellent in roles that require keen physical coordination and stamina as well as acting ability. Playwright Ibi Abrazi tempers the play’s theme of wartime tension with moments of black humor. (One of those moments involves Toni’s aforementioned warm, mysterious “booze.”…) Amazingly, the play takes great effort to show that neither side is necessarily “right” or “wrong”. Rather, it shows how the motivations of larger, more powerful international forces ultimately trickled down to two peace-seeking young men who theoretically have no real reason to be enemies. The conclusion of this unique production cannot really be described as “happy”– but like the real-life story of the war in Kosovo, it’s prophetically hopeful.

hb1Honey and Blood Theater’s An Albanian, A Serb, and the Soldiers continues through Sunday, July 14, 2019 at The Producers Club Theaters, 358 West 44th Street, New York City. Visit here for tickets and more information.

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