A Great Comedy About Albanians Down South

Fish-out-of-water stories can be very entertaining because we see the humor in the clash of different cultures.  Such comedies can reach new levels when we recognize that the "stranger in a strange land" actually has more similarities to their seemingly different new neighbors than they realized.  That is the case with the delightful play The Resistible Rise of Fatlinda Paloka about a family of Albanians who move to Georgia from New York after one of their own is threatened with deportation. 

There is hilarity, of course, in the contrasts between the wacky American Southerners and the outlandishly quirky Paloka family, but the biggest strength of the story lies in the parallels of both.  Although there are obvious dissimilarities between the Georgian Earp family and the European immigrants, the tale displays its greatest potency when we see that the more things seem different, the more they are actually pretty much the same: the bold, dramatic Confederate banner juxtaposed with the stark, dynamic Albanian flag; the shots of Jack Daniels whiskey and talk of the "moonshine" raki; the bluegrass banjo and the Albanian folk-music instrument ├žifteli; the desire by both families to hold on to their traditions and cultural heritage.

Director Joan Kane does a fine job of drawing out the best in her ensemble cast who nicely embody the funny and, at times, profound words by playwright Anne Giordano. 

Elza Zagreda portrays Fatlinda Paloka as a larger-than-life matriarch whose fearless audacity intimidates some of the "natives" as she nonetheless protects her family, both in the homeland and in their newly adopted country.  Elza's commanding stage presence is hard to resist.  She displays a lot of the wit that was evidenced in her own previous one-woman shows, some of which inspired the Albanian cultural references in this play after it was expanded from its original short version at the Brecht Forum in 2007 and then staged at Theater for the New City in 2008.

Roland Uruci is another strong presence in the dual role of the Narrator and Leotrim Paloka, showing terrific theater instincts in every scene he was in, especially the ones with Johnny Shkreli who played Sokol Paloka in a perfectly understated and extremely funny manner.  Roland, Johnny, and Elza are a wonderful comic trio, and I hope I have the chance to see them perform together again.

Nick Palladino brings great energy and many laughs to the character of Jimmy Earp.  His choices were vigorous and very fun to watch.  We see the many volatile and captivating facets of his personality as he interacts with his nagging wife Jolene, played by Julia Baltz, and the sympathetic Benny Paloka, portrayed by Bujan Rugova. 

More laughs come from the rest of the fine actors. Louis Zwichel plays two distinctly different but equally entertaining characters, the twitchy Conrad Stuckey and the Irish-brogued bar owner Tommy Barry, earning some well-deserved chuckles.   Anisa Dema, as Besarta Paloka, has a powerful dramatic scene as well as some laugh-out-loud moments.  Kazue Peck, as Heather Lee, is another fine surprise, delivering her lines in a genuine manner that was very endearing.  Cat Migliaccio as Drita Paloka and Duane, Amanda Johnson as Mandy de la Beckwith and Ruby Rogers, and Lumi Subasic as Lule Paloka all had their moments to shine and did not disappoint.

The play has plenty of laughs as Fatlinda unabashedly dominates the town of Greenville, enticing her enemies with the addictive taste of the pizza from her family-owned pizzeria.  While some scenes work better than others, the overall result is an enjoyable story that conveys the message that some things are universal, no matter what the setting, be it Albania, Kosova, New York, Georgia, Oregon, or the landscape of one's dreams.  Those universal things are family, friends, heritage, community, and, of course, humor.

The Resistible Rise of Fatlinda Paloka, presented by the production company Ego Actus, is playing at the Producer's Club in Manhattan through December 12.  Tickets are available through SmartTix.com.