Theatre Passe Muraille and lemonTree creations present this digital co-production of Toka. Written and choreographed by Indrit Kasapi, this highly stylized work blends dance and dialogue in its portrait of a blood feud between two Albanian families.
After missing his mark—coincidentally named Mark (Riley Sims)—only injuring this man responsible for their brother’s death, Ermal (Christopher Manousos) and his sister Arjola (Kat Khan) struggle with a tradition of vengeance. Will they continue the feud for their family’s honour or choose forgiveness? The established rules are challenged for the siblings when they connect with the matriarch of the opposing family and visitations from ancestral figures intensifies.
Andjelija Djuric’s set gives us jutting and jagged ramps streaked with red. The ground these character’s walk upon is precarious and stained by a history of family violence, the legacy of an on-going land dispute. These feuds—called gjakmarrja—continue in Albania to this day, a cruel and out-dated community-justice model that feels achingly performative amongst the participants here.
Kasapa’s choreography is natural and evocative, used primarily in the moments when Ermal is connecting to his male ancestors (portrayed by Kasapi, Sims and William Yong). His script, though, is naive and histrionic. Overall, the dramatic scenes feel tailored for children, though this certainly isn’t the intention.
The performances enhance this somewhat stilted, storybook quality. Rather than responding naturally to each other, the actors have decided on a way to deliver their lines and then play their scenes deliberately. In her direction, Cole Alvis fixates more on the aesthetics of each moment than their realism.
On the whole, I found this emotionally inaccessible, but there are a handful of moments that still carry undeniable human truth. The scenes where Mark’s mother (Nicole Joy-Fraser) tries to foster an alliance between her son, Ermal and Arjola feels nuanced and authentic. And there is an especially transcendent bit of choreography involving the offering of tea.
The story wrestles with cultural notions of gender dynamics. Women hold the healing potential of forgiveness, whereas aggression and vengeance are conventionally male traits. These conceptions are then shrewdly subverted in key moments where the brandishing of a gun or the wearing of a dress feel purposeful and revelatory.
Toka has a four-year history of development with pandemic obstacles to theatrical collaboration figuring prominently. An astonishing amount of passion and creativity are on display here. Though it didn’t resonant deeply with me, the artistic through-line is strong. I imagine this creative team’s efforts will hit home for many.