The Best of Elza

Saturday night, my sisters and I went to see a great theater show that we had heard a lot of positive buzz about, The Best of Elza: Growing Up Fat, Albanian, and Divorced.  Written and performed by the very talented Elza Zagreda, the one-woman show reveals some of the culture-clash idiosyncracies of Albanians in America.  The production was a remix of excerpts from Elza's previous critically acclaimed comedies, Corn Bread and Feta Cheese and Divorce: Albanian Style, with some great new material thrown in.  It was a wonderful evening of laughs and poignant observations about an often misunderstood but extremely proud people, and one woman's lifetime adventure trying to come to grips with her heritage. 

The evening began with a short stand-up comedy routine by Johnny Shkreli.  His impersonations of Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and Tony Soprano (as Albanians) were brilliant.  The laughs escalated throughout the night as Elza delved into scene after scene of hilarity.

As an Albanian-American myself, I thoroughly enjoyed it and wish more people had the opportunity to see it.  I first met Elza back in high school when we both shared the stage in a production of the ancient Greek classic, The Old Grouch.  The great personality and incredible comedic instincts that Elza showed back then have been honed and multiplied a thousandfold now.  Watching her tell her story and morph from one character to the next is a terrific experience for any audience -- Albanians can obviously relate to all the sidesplittingly funny anecdotes that Elza recreates, but non-Albanians can also find humor in the tales of Albanian kids trying to balance the freedom and opportunities of America with the traditions and xenophobia of the older generation still clinging to centuries-old customs.

While Elza takes delight in the "fish out of water" situations of Albanian immigrants in the strange new world of the United States, it also has many nice moments of poignant and heartfelt emotion, especially toward the end when Elza talks about family bonds and efforts to express their love to each other. 

Despite the easy jokes at the archaic customs and the culture's misogyny and male chauvenism, the show also manages, in a roundabout but intentional way, to embrace the many positive aspects of what it means to be an Albanian growing up in America, and how it has changed over the years.  As I mentioned before, I wish more people could see this show.  A film version someday could do for Albanian-Americans what My Big Fat Greek Wedding did for Greek-Americans -- open people's eyes to an ethnic community living the American dream while showcasing the multi-generational struggles to assimilate and keep their old culture and traditions alive.

The show, at the intimate Producers Club on 44th Street in the Theater District of Manhattan, runs through May 9.  Tickets are $25.  Visit Elza's Web site for more details.

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