BWW Review: 55 SHADES OF GAY: BALKAN SPRING OF SEXUAL REVOLUTION at La MaMa
This love story is lit. The play's title, which unfortunately sounds like a cheeky riff on a similarly named sexually charged book and movie franchise, bravely attempts to quantify an impossible sexual sum. With a running time of 70 minutes, this brisk burlesque-infused play tracks the progress and problems of a male gay couple. Adriano (Bujar Ahmeti) and Merlin (Tristan Halilaj) apply for a marriage license in Tashanik, a homophobic town in the Balkans. Equal parts peep show and politics, the play burns hot (fuchsia) unapologetically.
Written by acclaimed Kosovar playwright Jeton Neziraj, directed by Blerta Neziraj, and presented by La MaMa, "55 Shades" electrifies what could have been an otherwise important-but-familiar "fight for your rights" story. Although technically permitted by the country's Constitution signed by the prime minister, a same-sex marriage in the provincial town is the first of its kind: a same-sex marriage ceremony amidst a population of conservatism.
There are no gay clubs in Kosovo, same-sex marriage is not recognized, same-sex couples are not allowed to adopt, and people who are transgender are not allowed to legally change their gender. Lesbians, gays and bisexuals serve in the military, but there are no openly LGBT members of the Kosovo military.
So how does a creative team mount a theatrical offense against so much "no"? By saying yes to the un-dress, and employing a braided tangle of neon lights, sultry choreography, gender fluidity, anthropomorphism, and primal animal sounds. This sensorial circus animates the tension between natural sexual evolution and a revolution against provinciality. White and pink neon tubes that define the stage's perimeter are surprisingly repurposed as both light sabers and microphones; the war on sex is a loud business.
The couple's request coincides with the in-town construction of a condom manufacturing company, a project the European Union supports. But industry isn't enough to counterbalance the citizen's brigade against the boys: intellectuals, artists, politicians, religious leaders, and even a grenade-tossing terrorist join the offense. Leading the defense is groom-to-be Adriano: "An Italian never gives up."
As the cast effortlessly toggles between Albanian and English (with the dialogue and narration projected behind the floor-level stage), the audience consumes the sumptuous show from a look-but-don't-touch perspective. As one character speaks downstage, others slink and slither nearby, sometimes solo, sometimes paired, sometimes in ménage a trois formation.
Triangulation defines the performance space, with a red/white floor flanked by ceiling-tethered white threads tall as a boat sail. Five illuminated floor panels cast an energetic and eerie up-glow during character monologues, illuminating a talking tree as wise but rendering a gregarious grenadier as demented. Inflated helium-filled condoms tethered nearby are humorous reminders of the faith-in-finance mindset of the condom factory supporters, as well as the airheaded locals who ask, "Why don't you try sleeping with a woman?" and ""What kind of sex are people having nowadays? I don't understand."
Neither the sexes nor the matter at hand is binary; between radical polar opposites emerge some centrist ideas: hosting community sex-education workshops for information sharing, and hanging up "Gay is Ok" posters. But with so much political posturing going on, these approaches to safe sexuality don't stand a chance.
Concerned citizens deliver salacious reports on what they are seeing across the liberal land: men kissing! Women, together! No pitchforks or torches are needed, they wield words: "Faggots!" is how they address the grooms-to-be.
At times grim, grotesque but consistently gripping, the show's sights and sounds don't only push the envelope, they lick it. Appropriately, the volume is loud; everyone wants to be heard because their convictions are strong. Cacophony it is not; in fact, several haunting harmonizations fill the venue with a thrilling sensual-spiritual vibe.
I lost count of how much shade is thrown in this show, but the number that really matters is two: the couple getting married. The grooms' attire? Pink, defiant, unified. The vows? Prescribed. The cake? Where is the cake? Although we long for a slice of ritual to affirm our place in the party, sometimes smoke and mirrors reveal the truths of the tribe.
Photo Credit: Theo Cote