An Albanian woman spends her life trying to divide herself from her heritage until she learns to love and embrace it. This solo comedy is engaging and fun, but the history lesson and pride in Albania is superseded by the multiple European and American cultures that influenced it....................................................Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
To grow up Albanian is hard. To grow up fat and Albanian is even worse. In Elza Zagreda's Corn Bread & Feta Cheese: Growing Up Fat and Albanian, the writer and performer cycles through the 80s, the worth of women in the Kanun (the Albanian bible) and gunshot weddings (yes, gunshots, gunshots from guns that get hidden in the underpants of children when cops are around) to get to the other part of her being, the part that isn't tied to her roots. But after jumping continents and jumping states, Zagreda finds that such a part does not exist. Try as she may, she simply can't divorce herself from her little-known town and country. But as she paints such an eclectic picture of her early experiences, it's hard to imagine why she would want to.
In this 80-minute show that has been performed for three years counting, Zagreda takes us through her rough childhood as the eldest of four girls in her family and the disappointments associated with not being born male and a rightful heir to the family name and property. She recalls how difficult it was to blossom into womanhood in her culture, where women's rights were nil and the only profession that she could ever strive towards was to become a Nuse (wife) and satisfy her husband. Through the timely integration of voiceover clips, Zagreda is able to convey the heavy hand that the Kanun and men have on a woman's propriety. There would be no wonder in why Zagreda balked at growing up Albanian but for a few things: although the oppression and depression that she felt are clear, she also highlights a great sense of family within her community, a coveted experience for many. Also, her elaborate descriptions of parties and the various personalities that she mimics wonderfully under Vincent Marano's direction are done so jovially that it's difficult to fathom her torture. Even sheep herding, a lucrative profession for the rural country, elicits a smirk or two.
Another matter that remains ambiguous is the true essence of Albania, though that is the very thing that the premise of the show rests upon. Zagreda tries to bring awareness of Albania to the stage, but very little of its etymology and antiquity is addressed. That would have been helpful in light of the fact that Greek and Italian references are rampant both in characters and in customs. For instance, the use of the well-known Greek expression "Ooompa!" during festivities and the importance of foods such as Italian pasta to Albanian cuisine that rivals their famed corn bread and feta cheese. Although Greece and Italy did have great influence in forming Albania's culture and history, the land of Albania did exist prior to that, populated by Illyrians (Indo-Europeans) that we don't really hear about here. And this show is also saturated with American pop culture and music, more so than the folk music of the many clans that reside there. But this can also be partially attributed to the fact that Zagreda and her family lived both in New York (the Bronx) and Florida. Interestingly enough, Zagreda does comment about the fact that the language of Albania has no known root, so perhaps the lack of distinguishing Albanian characteristics stems from lost facts.
Zagreda puts her heart and soul into Corn Bread & Feta Cheese, creating a warm, friendly atmosphere for her country folk and everyone else alike. Although there are instances where Zagreda should project her voice more, her ability to manipulate you into good cheer is clear. Also, you may be stumped by the various Albanian terms used with few translations, but the show is still funny and endearing. Part-standup, part-therapy, and part-storytelling, you'll never forget that you've met at least one Albanian in your lifetime.
........................................................Through November 24th. Tickets: $22. TheaterMania at 212-352-3101.
Players Theatre 115 MacDougal Street New York, NY