Stage Door Review

Toka

Friday, April 22, 2022

✭✭

written and choreographed by Indrit Kasapi, directed by Cole Alvis

Theatre Passe Muraille & lemonTree creations, Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto

April 20-23, 2022 online

Mrs. Noka: “Forgiveness is our only salvation”

Indrit Kasapi’s play Toka has finally made it to the virtual stage after several Covid-related delays. The producers, Theatre Passe Muraille & lemonTree creations, could not have known that Covid restrictions would be loosened to such an extent as to make live theatre possible again, so they are presenting Toka as a filmed performance. This is a pity since Toka is as much physical theatre as spoken drama and inevitably would have far greater impact if it were seen live and in person. Nevertheless, Toka as directed by Cole Alvis and as filmed by Kejd Kuqo is one of the best examples of filmed theatre to have come out of the pandemic.

Kasapi, who was born in Albania and moved to Toronto in his teens, writes about the pernicious cycle of gjakmarrja or blood feuds, a medieval tradition that did not die when either the Ottomans or hated dictator Enver Hoxha forbade them. In fact, the practice revived after the fall of communism in 1991. Blood feuds are all about a family preserving its honour. If a member of a family is killed, that family is bound to kill a member of the offending family. According to the ancient lex talionis the aggrieved receive justice when an eye is taken for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. In gjakmarrja family honour demands that every murder be avenged and thus the cycle of killings never stops and can continue for generations.

In Toka (which means “land” in Albanian) a blood feud has been going on between the Marashi Clan and the Noka Clan for 27 years. The feud began when the state, for unknown reasons, took the land owned by the Nokas and gave it to the Marashis. When the grandfather of the present Noka youth went to the grandfather of the present Marashi youth to ask for some of the land back to feed his starving family, he was killed. Each clan has a different explanation for why this happened, but the mere fact of it happening led to five more murders.

Just before the action of the play begins Mark Noka has killed Besnik Marashi (William Yong), who blood-stained shirt hangs over a rail for most of the play. The play begins with the attempt of Ermal Marashi to kill Mark to avenge Besnik’s death. Unfortunately for Ermal, he has only wounded, not killed, Mark (Riley Sims).

This is unfortunate for Ermal only because of the internal conflict it causes. Both Ermal and his sister Arjola (Kat Khan) believe the feud should stop. Ermal and Mark are each the last males of their lines. (Gjakmarrja is carried out only by men against men.) Yet, Ermal feels bound by duty to the spirits of his brother, father and grandfather (William Yong, Riley Sims and Indrit Kasapi) to defend the family honour and try again to kill Mark.

As we discover later, Ermal’s internal conflict has another side. He enjoys wearing his late mother’s clothes because he thinks it brings him closer to her. We have to assume that he is vaguely confused about his sexual orientation because he thinks he must kill Mark to prove that he is “man enough” to defend the family honour.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Noka seeks to end the blood feud in her own way. Before her death Ermal and Arjola’s mother begged Mrs. Noka to stop the killing. As a result Mrs. Noka takes steps to befriend Arjola, to tell her the truth of how the feud started and to help her see Mark as her son and another human being who deserves to live despite his having killed Besnik.

In order not to spoil the ending, I will have to be very vague and say merely that Mrs. Noka’s plan to reconcile the two clans is on the verge of being realized when Ermal ruins it. Up to this point the play has been gripping and our sympathy has lain with Ermal. Unfortunately, Ermal takes an action that seems forced. Yes, we know that he has pressure on him to do his duty and to be manly, but we also know he doesn’t want the blood feud to continue. Why, then, when the feud is just about to be resolved through peaceful means does he make this impossible?

The answer is that Kasapi desires a melodramatic ending despite the direction that his story has taken. Ermal loses all our sympathy through his action so that we no longer care what happens to him. To effect an ending Kasapi requires Mrs. Noka unbelievably to express forgiveness for Ermal that only a saint, not a human mother, could feel. Mrs. Noka’s forgiveness must be believable to be effective. When Mrs. Noka says earlier “Forgiveness is our only salvation”, she is referring to ordinary not extraordinary human beings. Kasapi needs to portray forgiveness as within the realm of ordinary human choices, not, as here, the extraordinary choice of one extraordinary woman.

It is disheartening to see Kasapi undermine his play when everything leading up to the conclusion has been so well done. The play features both spoken and danced passages almost in equal measure and is one of the rare examples I’ve seen where that combination actually succeeds. Kasapi uses the danced segments to give us insight both into the world outside Ermal and into Ermal’s perception of it. Which side we are actually seeing at any one time is not always clear. Neither is it clear from the start who the three men called merely “Apparitions” represent, i.e. Ermal’s slain relatives.

Nevertheless, Kasapi is not only the playwright but also the  choreographer and his work in that capacity is varied and demanding and expresses the complex bonds of duty and rivalry that unite the men of this society. Although all the male cast have dance in their backgrounds, some are able to execute Kasapi’s choreography with greater ease than others. William Yong in particular stands out as the most graceful and expressive of the four.

Christopher Manousos (they/them) fully conveys through gesture and facial expression Ermal’s multiple sources of anxiety, but they tend to speak all of their lines with the same intonation even when the situation around them undergoes major alterations.

As Arjola, Kat Khan is far better at varying her speech patterns and makes Arjola’s crucial change from defending the Marashi Clan’s self-serving myth of themselves to accepting the truth of the Noka’s version of the facts. Khan’s defences seem visibly to melt when Mrs. Noka tells her the story of the blanket Arjola wants to return.

Nicole Joy-Fraser gives one of her best ever performances as Mrs. Noka. She accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making an unwaveringly good character interesting by sustaining Mrs. Noka’s ardour in such a credible way. Kasapi’s ending does finally require Mrs. Noka to leave ordinary human feelings behind and act out of an almost otherworldly virtue. Joy-Fraser comes as close as anyone could to fulfilling this task. I’ve seen Joy-Fraser in many productions, but this is the first time I’ve heard her sing. She has a lovely voice and directors should have her make use of it more often.

The remaining male performers have little or nothing to say. Only two are identified with named characters – Riley Sims as Mark Noka and William Yong as Besnik Marashi. Yong has real presence and exudes more intensity even when silent and still than does Manousos when speaking and in motion. Sims has a memorable moment with Mrs. Noka and Arjola when Mark gradually changes merely through expression and posture from deep suspicion of an enemy to the relief of giving up enmity entirely. Indrit Kasapi, the author and choreographer, also performs, but literally keeps himself in the background.

If there is a flaw in Kasapi’s text, besides the forced conclusion, it is his references that only Albanians would understand even though the vast majority of his audience will not be Albanian. He well explains the rules of gjakmarrja in the text, but he could also explain what the tower is where Ermal leaves a packet of money. Arjola mistakes Mrs. Noka for a zana, but we need to know that means to understand its implications. Mrs. Noka asks Arjola if she knows the legend of Rozafa but never explains it even though she later uses imagery derived from it. Kasapi should explain these things if not in the text then at least in notes in the programme.

As it happens, the tower Ermal goes to is a towerhouse called a kullë in Albanian, a structure built as a safehouse for those involved in a blood feud. From the play we might think that zana was a goddess, but in fact it is simply the name for any nature spirit. As for Rozafa, Kasapi could have had Mrs. Noka explain that Rozafa was a young woman who sacrificed herself for the good of the community by being immured in a castle wall. Explaining this Kasapi could have highlighted the theme of self-sacrifice as well as forgiveness as ways of combatting violence.

As filmed theatre Toka is remarkable for using film to emphasize theatricality of the play rather than merely document it or overwhelm it. The shots have all been carefully storyboarded and skillfully edited to support Kasapi’s storytelling. In particular, cinematographer Kejd Kuqo allows us to see how dynamic Melissa Joakim’s lighting is. Kuqo is also one of few cinematographers who understands how to film dance. He knows that to be effective the film must show the dancers at full length so that we can see the relation of the performers actions in relation to each other and to the space they inhabit. Kuqo also knows to how to use a close-up to signify than once ordinary objects, like a blanket or two guns, have become symbolic. Toka is one of the best-filmed plays I’ve ever seen and I will certainly look for Kuqo’s name in future.

Despite the ending, Toka does so much good I would still urge theatre-goers to see it. In fact, I hope TPM brings Toka back for a longer run. Kasapi’s integration of dance and speech is exemplary. The subject matter will certainly spark interest in Albania and make audiences eager to learn more about what once was the most isolated country in Europe. Alvis’s use of diverse casting helps to bring out the universality of Kasapi’s tale of revenge and forgiveness since indeed all societies have or have had some form of blood feud ongoing or in their past.

In a time when blame and animosity among various groups of people has become all too common and even encouraged, it is comforting to be reminded by a play like this that penalties and retribution are not the only options in dealing with perceived wrongs. Human beings are also capable of magnanimity and forgiveness and these, not revenge, are the virtues that can lead to healing.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Riley Sims, William Yong and Indrit Kasapi as Apparitions, © 2022 Brian Medina; Kat Khan as Arjola and Christopher Manousos as Ermal, © 2022 Kejd Kuqo; Kat Khan as Arjola, Nicole Joy-Fraser as Mrs. Noka and Riley Sims as Mark Noka, © 2022 Kejd Kuqo; Christopher Manousos as Ermal, © 2022 Brian Medina. 

For tickets visit www.passemuraille.ca.