Doruntine was the first such collaboration ever when it premiered a few years ago. Blessed Unrest’s Matt Opatrny, who wrote the company’s superb psychological drama LYING, co-wrote Doruntine with Litak Çelaj, and it’s co-directed internationally as well, by Jessica Burr and ODA’s Florent Mehmeti.
Like LYING, Doruntine uses arty techniques like having single characters played collectively (that is, at the same time) by more than one actor; extremely spare sets; and action and atmosphere suggested by the movement of actors’ bodies. (Among many other effects, the cast creates a horse and rider with their bodies.) Lengths of white and black hanging cloth represent actions and rituals and even the spirits of people.
Though these techniques may be mannered, they’re also very effective, especially in telling a deeply emotional ghost story like this one. Doruntine is a young woman who marries a man from a distant land, leaves her heartbroken mother when she goes away to live with him, and is whisked home in mysterious fashion three years later after disaster befalls her family.
From the opening scene, performed entirely in Albanian (Kosovar culture is primarily Albanian), the play enfolds us in mystery, established first by the language barrier. Doruntine is returning to her mother, but their moment of loving reunion turns chilling at Doruntine’s mention of someone named Constantine. That’s all non-speakers of Albanian can make out.
Slowly the situation clarifies as we hear more English and we learn who’s who. Besides Lady Mother (the formidable Ilire Çelaj) and Doruntine (Njomëza Ibraj Fetiu and Poppy Liu), there are Doruntine’s brother, sister-in-law, and cousin, as well as her husband (Nathan Richard Wagner), who in this version of the fable is American. The directors and cast reveal the scenario with sharp pacing and artful acting.
As a result, an extensive flashback to Doruntine’s journey home, though staged with skill, flair, and energy, is a little bit of a letdown after the meat of the story has already been revealed. The tension deflates because we already know what’s happening.
Nevertheless, when the presentation comes full circle and we see the opening scene replayed in English, the narrative gives us a very satisfying end.
Program notes say Teatri ODA is Kosovo’s only independent theater company with its own space. As such, its players must expect everything they do to be viewed under a nationalist magnifying glass, which may explain the message of national pride and strength at the end of Doruntine. It feels a little out of place. We’ve just seen the supernaturally powerful life force that animates the story and represents the nation’s strength of character devastate what’s left of Doruntine’s family.
Still, under the violent circumstances out of which the nation of Kosovo has been born, and given how alien the culture of Kosovo is to New York City’s theater world (and vice versa), much can be forgiven. And little needs to be. This is a well-acted, smoothly written, and excitingly staged work of cultural blending. The opportunity to see it is the kind of thing for which we can be grateful.