Corrections or additions?

This article by Joan Crespi was published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 25, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `The Balkan Women’

For an excellent play, beautifully acted by a

professional

cast, hurry south to Bristol Riverside Theater where the world

premiere

of Jules Tasca’s drama, "The Balkan Women," is playing until

March 1. You won’t see better on Broadway.

The contemporary play by an award-winning playwright is about the

bitter ethnic strife between Christians and Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

As one character tells us, "Hate is the ground we stand on."

From the moment the play opens, with blasts, bright lights, and smoke,

until its final lines, this conflict fires the play, which never lets

up in intensity.

But the audience is mistaken. This blast is the explosion of a Serb

fuel depot, and who drove the car with the explosives on a timing

device is the question that first sets the play in motion. Amina Jusic

and her daughter Samira are brought — thrust — into the

concentration

camp for Muslim women in the Serb round-up of women suspects. Only

women, children, and old men are left to be held responsible for the

blast: the younger Muslim men, including Amina’s husband and Samira’s

purported father, are all gone into the Muslim army. It soon becomes

clear that Samira, unknown to her mother, drove the truck carrying

the explosives that blew up the depot and the 16 Serb soldiers inside.

What she didn’t know was that some of the victims were buddies of

one of her Serb captors.

The entire play is set in the concentration camp —

indicated with a few strands of barbed wire strung across the back

of the stage and a chain-link gate — and both time and space are

telescoped as the gripping action moves from one part of the stage

to another, progressing fluidly, from blackout scene to blackout

scene.

The scenes may be punctuated by a narrator, the character Lieutenant

Jovan Vlaco, whose often near-poetic remarks underscore the action.

At the outset we see this character applying a monster’s red-and-black

make up, thus transforming himself from an ordinary, feeling human

being into a monster, here a Muslim-hating Serb soldier.

Tasca knows how to ratchet up tension; the play’s twists and turns

are constantly spellbinding. "The Balkan Women" both documents

in action and in the narrator’s words the cruelty and futility of

war among neighbors who once lived peacefully together, bought eggs,

and made love (with attendant consequences) across ethnic lines, never

minding whether the other worshiped Jesus Christ or Allah. But after

Yugoslavia broke up, so did peaceful co-existence, as the people

reverted

to a strife dating back to medieval times, and each became to the

other "the enemy." (Tasca wisely delivers his history in the

mouths of his well-drawn characters.)

Sean Dougherty is fierce and convincing as Lieutenant Jovan Vlaco,

Marta Vidal plays a desperate and stricken Amina trying to save her

daughter, and Elizabeth Mestnik is angry and winsome and strong as

Samira. Maya Israel plays the fierce, fanatical Jela Kaljanao

believably,

and Stephen Schnetzer does a fine acting job, tough yet tender, as

Colonel Branislav Herak (although he looks too young to have fathered

a grown daughter). With most of the large cast — including the

two four-person choruses — always on stage, Edward Keith Baker

makes his directing seem that best kind, unobtrusive.

The skillfully plotted and moving play is all about the senselessness

and brutality of war — "The whole war’s an atrocity."

The title is reminiscent of Euripides’ tragedy "The Trojan

Women,"

written four centuries before Christ (does mankind never learn?).

Tasca uses ancient techniques such as narrator and a chorus, but here

the two choruses, whether four black-clad Serbian guards or four

gray-robed

and scarved Muslim women, have no lines of their own. Unlike a

classical

chorus’s direct commentaries, here the choral actors say the lines

along with the main characters precisely as they are spoken, so

underscoring

and giving community backing to the words. "The Trojan Women"

has been called "one of the most powerful indictments of war ever

written." To such powerful indictments of war add "The Balkan

Women."

— Joan Crespi

The Balkan Women, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120

Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. Continues Wednesday, February

25, through Sunday, March 1. $22 to $27.

Directions: Take Route 1 south across the bridge at Trenton;

then turn right onto and follow Route 13. At EconoLodge get in left

lane, make a left at large "Charles" sign onto Green Lane.

Continue to the end, to Radcliffe Street, and turn right.

Bristol-Riverside

Theater is about two miles down on the left at 120 Radcliffe Street.


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