“I climbed into the world without a destiny.”
Baba: The Life & Death of Stana–authored, composed and keenly directed by Karmina Šilec–is instantly smart; a cutting-edge musical theater with sophisticated staging, imagery and otherworldly vocals. Baba operatically dives into the complexities of an age-old tradition from Eastern Europe of sworn virgins who exchange their female gender for the rights and privileges of men. The motives for this gender transformation are social rather than preferential, different from feelings of being male by nature. The choice is both pragmatic and patriarchal, a means of survival—of the individual and of the social, and economic relationships within their community. The performance reveals often brutal and bleak stories, snippets of quotes that raises questions about whether these sworn virgins, who become men is an “illusion, a violence, or a salvation,” indifferently told with subtle tenderness through hauntingly seductive vocals and opulent minimalistic style–in gesture, word, and set.
In the first act, the ensemble stands stoically, all in black, like a murder of crows about to take flight or like defiant onlookers at a funeral. Individual vocals and text bubble up, seemingly random, like a slow-moving pinball supported by the drone of acoustic strings. Fragmented, gut-wrenching stories unfold, the names of virgins recited over a stylized segment with shot glasses and bottles of vodka—as a mixed media take on the Balkan story-singing tradition transports the audience deeper into the world of the “virdžinas”—the sworn virgins. Some imagined and others real, some only 14 others in their 70s and 80s. “Stana, how do you feel in your body? …She doesn’t know the answer to that question.”
It’s a meaty 2-hour journey into the breathtaking mythic and nightmarish absurdity of mankind’s (choice of word intended) imagination; creativity distorted and bent through the ruthless lens of male dominance and how women have adapted to this view either by choice or force. Baba is colored with historical, stylized costuming, music, and rituals from the Balkans with Zen-like precision and clarity. Baba requires a read of the program notes before entering its passage; otherwise, its deconstructive narrative will baffle, leaving one in its flooding wake.
Set and projection designer, Dorian Šilec Petek’s free-standing, floor-length paper skirts begin the more abstract second act. The skirt sculptures pepper the stage like a museum installation, allowing for video projections of Balkan textiles to color, pattern and texture the white shapes. As static sculpture, performers can easily walk into the skirts from behind as if wearing them or they give the appearance of undressing when they leave.
Baba is unflinchingly not for everyone. And yes, a two-hour long performance can always use another edit, especially in the second act. But if it catches you by its minimalist aesthetic, streamlined poetics, and Kitka’s prodigious vocal talent (since 1979), you will enter a world that “inquisitive researchers, journalists, tourists,” and artists have pursued and found, and still find intriguing. Kitka commissioned this world-class spectacle, forcing themselves–a gifted eleven-member vocal ensemble–to go beyond singing–adding acting, dancing and movement to their repertoire. Will their longstanding fanbase accompany them, or will they lose a few on the way? Either way, Baba is a performance that will not quickly leave your psyche.
David e. Moreno