After stirring up controversy in its native Kosovo, 55 Shades of Gay: Balkan Spring of Sexual Revolution has alit at La Mama in much more LGBT-friendly New York City. Here this vigorous political burlesque is a cutting reminder that extreme and often institutionalized homophobia still reigns in many parts of the world.
Hearts and minds in the U.S. certainly aren’t immune. Nor is anything permanently settled in liberal Western Europe, and certainly not in the European Union as a whole. That’s the starting point for this electric tale of a condom factory, a same-sex marriage, and talking trees and weapons.
The bare-bones plot involves an Italian entrepreneur building a condom factory in a very conservative Kosovar town. He and a young local man apply to the town administrator for a marriage license. Because Kosovo wants admission to the EU, the country’s new constitution permits same-sex marriage, but the local bureaucrats, not to mention the homophobic townspeople, are having none of it. Soon some folks are literally up in arms.
Thus one of the fiercest social struggles of our age plays out in microcosm in this little town in a tiny country that many Westerners couldn’t find on a map.
Speaking or chanting many of their lines in accented English, the cast reverts to Albanian for some of the more furious dialogue. Dim supertitles become almost impossible to read when the performers line up on brightly lit squares downstage, and also at the end when a great puff of dry ice vapor obscures the backdrop.
Luckily, it’s not hard to get the drift, since the show is so conceptually supersized. Dialogue and declarations are shunted through modern-dance blocking, songs, chants, and sound effects, all shining a bright light on plainly depicted prejudice and spite, love and sex, and fumbling bureaucracy.
Costume elements, personifications of inanimate objects, and abstract blocking hark unapologetically back to the 20th-century theatrical avant-garde. But filtered through an unfamiliar culture, the spectacle feels mostly fresh, and all heartfelt. One can only marvel at the effort and dedication that must have gone, first, into creating and mounting this controversial show in Kosovo, then rendering much of it into English and taking it across the ocean.
Written by Jeton Neziraj, directed by Blerta Neziraj, and performed by multitalented Kosovar troupe Qendra Multimedia, this powerful, semi-operatic curiosity runs through March 17 at La MaMa. Visit the website for tickets and schedule.